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 2,5001


(1801): 16,846


 Hon. Lawrence Dundas967
14 Oct. 1811 HON. LAWRENCE DUNDAS vice Milner, deceased 
22 June 1818HON. LAWRENCE DUNDAS1446
 William Bryan Cooke1055

Main Article

York made up as a market town and social centre for what it lacked in economic vitality. The dispersal of the large freeman electorate and the partiality of the lower class of resident freemen for election favours made it an expensive constituency and ‘not an inviting place for an adventurer’.2 While the Whig interest, sponsored by Earl Fitzwilliam and centred on the Rockingham Club, were determined to regain the ground they had lost through the defeat of Lord John Cavendish and Sir William Milner in 1784,3 they were not anxious for another contest. When in November 1787 Lord Galway, one of the successful Yorkshire Association candidates snubbed by Fitzwilliam in 1784, surprised his supporters at York by waiving his pretensions for the future, Fitzwilliam had to cool the ardour of his friends to name a contending candidate. It was thought that Lord John Cavendish might respond to a unanimous invitation, but he was loath to return to York or to displace his fellow aspirant Milner, and advised Fitzwilliam not to make his intentions public but let it be supposed that Cavendish and Milner were standing again, keeping his own withdrawal a secret among friends. He hinted at the possibility of a compromise between Milner and Milnes, the other Pittite Member, and otherwise mentioned Beilby Thompson* as a proper colleague for Milner. Fitzwilliam welcomed the notion of a compromise from the start, particularly as the other side produced no substitute candidate for Lord Galway; had they done so, it was expected that Galway would resign. Thompson’s claim was admitted, but his preference for Hedon was well known, and Milner, who as mayor in 1787 was attempting to woo the electorate, put in a word for John Hall (afterwards Wharton*) of Skelton. Fitzwilliam did not object, but stipulated that no engagement should be made.

The situation was complicated by rumours that Milnes was likely to become an opposition convert, and still more by Galway’s actual desertion to opposition during the Regency, whereupon Fitzwilliam was asked to consider a coalition between Galway, who still had ‘a very strong interest’, and Milner.4 While subtler means of propaganda were toyed with, such as the distribution of pamphlets, setting up freemen clubs and starting an opposition newspaper, Fitzwilliam’s agent Robert Sinclair, not an able prosyletizer, relied on control of the corporation and the distribution of favours to the freemen and the purchase of freedom for others to maintain popularity, not to speak of the orgiastic welcome organized for the Prince of Wales when he was made free of the city in August 1789. When he mentioned Sir Thomas Gascoigne* to Fitzwilliam as a likely second candidate, Sinclair commended him for having, apart from a connexion with the former Turner interest at York, ‘plenty of coals as a lure to the poor people’. Sinclair’s election as recorder, by the casting vote of the mayor in January 1789, was regarded as a good omen for the general election.5 In March 1789 a compromise between Milner and Milnes was aired, Lord John Cavendish having again placed himself out of the question. Provided that the overture came from Milnes, it was acceptable to the Whigs, though they were tempted by the possibility of being able to carry two Members, Sinclair suggesting Gascoigne or William Weddell*. On the failure of the opposition bid for power through a Regency, however, Milnes, whose supporters had been demoralized by death and bankruptcy, rallied the ‘Friends of the King and constitution’ at York, and in May 1789 Fitzwilliam acceded in principle to a mediated compromise instigated by Milnes: there was no contract, but it was chose entendue.6

The compromise was kept quiet as it was bound to disappoint the mob; and a friend of government, noting Milnes’s neglect of his supporters in the autumn of 1789, wondered that he had not been provided with a prospective colleague. Despite a last-minute rumour that Matthew Montagu* was to step into this role, the compromise was realized and the Whig canvass of 1790 so successful that one supporter, Alderman Thomas Wilson, wrote, ‘I would engage my life we should have carried two as easily as one’, while Sinclair reported: ‘It is wonderful to see the change in the minds of the York people since the last general election. We had the whole popular cry in our favour.’ Milner, who had discouraged the hopes of Walter Ramsden Fawkes* of standing with him, to preserve the compromise, was unable to prevent ‘three hundred’ of his friends from sending for Sir George Armytage to do so, but Armytage properly declined. The ‘miraculous conversion’ of York was further attested to by the enthusiasm with which Fox was received in August 1791 when he was made free of the city at Fitzwilliam’s instigation, and the accession of Milnes to the opposition henceforward completed the Whig triumph.7

Fitzwilliam’s decision to support government in the conduct of war against revolutionary France was a fly in the ointment; Milner wrote to him, 14 Sept. 1794 and again on 18 Nov., wishing to resign his seat because he was determined to vote against the war. His view was widely endorsed in Yorkshire and Fitzwilliam thought it best not to interfere. For the time being, his interest lapsed and the Duke of Norfolk was looked up to as a potential leader of the York Whigs. At the election of 1796, Milner and Milnes, united in their opposition to the war, were returned unopposed, though it was thought that, had a third man offered, Milnes would have been defeated.8

Subsequently Fitzwilliam became disillusioned, and when Milnes retired for health reasons in 1802 he put up his nephew Lawrence Dundas, who had emphasized his opposition to the war while Member for Richmond. Milnes’s volte face had caused disarray among the York Tories and they were unable to promote a candidate. Hall Plumer of Bilston Hall aspired to the honour and tried in vain to secure the support of Lord Hawke, whose interest at York was still something to conjure with, though in his own view overrated. Plumer only nibbled and Tory hopes centred on Lord Muncaster, sponsored by the dean of York, and he put out an address: but it was a ‘cut and run’ affair, which played into Whig hands by keeping other contenders away and enabling them to make known Dundas’s pretensions, which had to appear to be ‘ex mero motu suo’, so as to avoid the imputation of a Whig coalition and monopoly. Milner canvassed first to pave the way for Dundas and his indiscreet enthusiasm for his colleague’s success gave the game away, but his own popularity, founded on the goodwill of the corporation, was established beyond cavil and there was no stir. Daniel Sykes had reported to Fitzwilliam that of 1,400 resident freemen canvassed, 1,300 of whom were prepared to promise, 800 were available for Dundas. He added that if Dundas did not meet with universal approbation, ‘it did not arise from any objection to his person or principles, but to a jealousy of the corporation having two candidates’. There was expense, as ‘nearly 1,260’ freemen accepted Fitzwilliam’s ‘usual present’ of half a guinea after the election, though promised no reward for their virtue; and Milner likewise paid up. Dundas’s return cost over £2,330.9

Although there was again a threat of a third man in 1806, none materialized. Milner and Dundas’s committees again canvassed separately, to discourage a contest: ‘the having two rallying points makes it more difficult to raise an opposition standard’, wrote Dundas to Fitzwilliam, ‘particularly as my committee catches a great number of the leaders of what is called the anti-corporation interest’. In fact Dundas was delayed by his wife’s confinement and Sinclair warned that this would not do, Sir William Milner having canvassed ‘with unparalleled success’: the advent of a third man would place Dundas at a disadvantage, particularly with the outvoters. But he arrived in time to redeem the situation. The preservation of the status quo in 1806 cost Fitzwilliam £1,918 13s.11d.10

In 1807 Fitzwilliam, a member of the outgoing ministry, staked everything on carrying his son for the county. Advantage of this situation was taken by Sir Mark Sykes who challenged him, in person at York and through his purse at Malton. He aimed to exploit the ‘No Popery’ cry and rally the York Tories. Lord Headley* arrived at York with the same intention, but gave way to Sykes, who diverted him to Malton. Fitzwilliam was warned:

Sir Mark is probably one of the most powerful opponents we could have had, and the cry of ‘No Popery’ and an inactive and unpopular committee has operated strongly against us, and it is likewise to be remembered that there is a very anxious and violent Tory party in the town and many Methodists who are to a man our enemies.

At the nomination, Milner, whose canvass had gone well, gave a qualified support to the fatal Catholic bill, while Dundas, though he played down the bill, made his loyalty to the outgoing ministry clear. The show of hands favoured Milner and Sykes, as did the ensuing poll, which lasted six days, of which Sykes led for three. Dundas’s friends blamed his defeat on the Methodists, those of York being allegedly ‘the highest Tories’, at least the older generation of them; and on the neglect of the outvoters. Fitzwilliam gained the county, but lost the city seat: his expense on the latter amounted to £4,323 12s.10d.11

Having taught Fitzwilliam his lesson, Sykes was an unenthusiastic Member of Parliament, though he maintained his interest by largesse, doubling the voters’ fee; and nothing came of a plan of the Milnes family to secure the return of Robert Pemberton Milnes*, son of the late Member, under Sykes’s auspices. In 1811 Lawrence Dundas became mayor ‘as a means of currying favour and interest in case of a general election’ and used his ‘gift of speech’ to rehabilitate himself. When Milner died in September 1811 his son, who disliked the expense, declined the vacancy on the grounds that his father had not wished it on him, and Dundas was returned unanimously instead. The bill came to £1,644 8s.9d. A contest would have been a liability. As an observer in February remarked of York: ‘This city and county seem to be divided into two parties, as distinct and violent as are the organs of their respective tenets—the Post and Chronicle’. In 1812 there was a tacit compromise. Sending Fitzwilliam a bill of £2,269 17s.11d., his agent regretted the rising cost of maintaining the interest, exacerbated by the need to keep on terms with the outvoters.12

Sykes’s support of an unpopular government made a contest inevitable in 1818. Fitzwilliam had no intention of openly putting up two candidates and the initiative as to the second Whig string passed to the partisan freemen. On 8 June at a meeting of about 500 they resolved that there should be two candidates in their interest, as the present representation was ‘inefficient’, and proposed Sir William Mordaunt Sturt Milner to join Dundas. Milner declined and Col. Cooke of Wheatley eventually accepted the invitation instead. Meanwhile Dundas had submitted to the formal endorsement of this freeman phalanx, now swollen to between 800 and 1,000, and one of their sponsors, Martin Stapylton of Myton, had offered to come forward (not for the first time) if backed by 500 promises and provided there was no question of a guinea a vote; while another, S. W. Nicoll, had provided them with a declaration of intent to the effect that the heedless extravagance of a ministry which flouted and muzzled popular distress was warrant enough for displacing Sykes. When Col. Cooke arrived on the scene, 13 June, he took up a platform of moderate reform and retrenchment: he was five days behind on the canvass, but secured 612 promises. The show of hands favoured Dundas and Cooke, but a coalition was denied by Dundas’s proposer, 18 June, and great embarrassment felt at the decision of the London freemen to support them jointly.13 After four days, Cooke ceded victory, complaining of desertions and of ‘every species of bribery’ by Sykes, who secured 902 plumpers on a record poll, and assuring Fitzwilliam that nothing would induce him to try again. Fitzwilliam was promised that it only required good management to return two Whigs, in view of the strong anti-ministerial spirit at York; and if Sykes’s bad health led to his retirement in favour of Robert Pemberton Milnes, it was thought a candidate of Cooke’s calibre should be put up against him, or else some ‘mischievous demagogue’ would step into the vacuum. The expense deterred Cooke—the election had cost over £7,000—and a subscription was suggested for a Whig second Member. On 8 Feb. 1819 the York Whig Club issued its manifesto. The plan succeeded in 1820, when Sykes unexpectedly left the Blues to fend for themselves against a Whig coalition, but at over twice the cost.14

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. 2,233 voted in 1758, 2,238 in 1807, 2,369 in 1818 and 2,722 in 1820.
  • 2. Fitzwilliam mss X515/20, Cavendish to Fitzwilliam, 18 Nov. [1787].
  • 3. Ibid. box 37, Milner to Fitzwilliam, 20 [Apr.], Sinclair to same, 12, 26 May, 2 June, Dring to same, 10, 28 Nov. 1784.
  • 4. Ibid. X512/19, 20, Cavendish to Fitzwilliam, Fri. [16], 18 Nov.; X516/9/1, Milner to Fitzwilliam [Nov.]; box 40, Sinclair to same, 17 Nov., Fitzwilliam to Milner, 24 Nov.; box 38, Dring to Fitzwilliam, 27 Sept., Sinclair to same, [?28 Dec.], Fitzwilliam to Milner, 31 Dec. 1787; box 39, Dring to Fitzwilliam, 9 Feb., Sykes to same, 23 Nov. 1788.
  • 5. Ibid. acct. bks, 25 Dec. 1787; box 40, Sykes to Fitzwilliam, 18 May 1789; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F34/136, 162, 164, 171, 181, 188, 189, 190; Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 468.
  • 6. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F34/191, 193; F115/1, 4, 6.
  • 7. Fitzwilliam mss, box 41, Lady Milner to Fitzwilliam, Wed. 9 [June]; Sinclair to same, 20 June; Milner to same, [12], 23 June; box 60, [? Markham] to Lady Milner, 11 June; X515/39, Wilson to Fitzwilliam, Mon. [14 June 1790]; Blair Adam mss, Fitzwilliam to Adam, 8 Sept. [1791].
  • 8. Blair Adam mss, Hill to Adam, 19 Jan.; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F27/30; F34/203; F42/55; Fitzwilliam mss, box 46, Milder to Fitzwilliam, 18 Nov. 1794; Add. 47569, f. 52; Morning Chron. 23, 26 May 1796.
  • 9. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F35/83-87, 89-92, 98, 99; F48/120; The Times, 18 May 1802.
  • 10. York Herald, 25 Oct.; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. E209, Sinclair to Fitzwilliam, 19, 20, 22 Oct.; E210, Rhodes to same, 18 Oct., L. Dundas to same, 19 Oct., D. Sykes to same, 19 Oct., Sinclair to same, Fri. [1 Nov. 1806].
  • 11. York Courant, 4, 11, 18 May; Hull Advertiser, 2 May; Hull Packet, 5 May; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. E210, Croft to Fitzwilliam, 4 May; F48/125, election accts.; N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/10/4, election accts.; Fitzwilliam mss, box 72, Lady Milton to Lady Fitzwilliam, 18 May, Oastler to Fitzwilliam, 2 July 1807.
  • 12. Parl. Reports (Committees 6), 1835, x. iii (York, July 1835); Lonsdale mss, Armytage to Lowther, 17 Sept.; Add. 34458, f. 230; 52172, Allen to Holland, Wed. [1 Aug. 1810]; Bath Archives ed. Lady Jackson, i. 206; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F41/6, 127, 131.
  • 13. The Poll at York (1818); Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F48/138, 139, 143, 145; G1/6, 10; The Late Elections (1818), 424.
  • 14. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F48/146, 147, 157, 173; N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW7/2/257/2.