Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in burgage holders

Number of voters:

101 in 18311


3,403 (1821); 3,467 (1831)2


11 Feb. 1824COPLEY re-elected after appointment to office 
8 May 1827STURGES BOURNE re-elected after appointment to office 
5 Feb. 1828STURGES BOURNE re-elected after appointment to office 
25 Feb. 1831WILLIAM STEPHEN POYNTZ vice Arbuthnot, vacated his seat 
 Sir Lawrence Vaughan Palk, bt.41

Main Article

Ashburton, a stannery and market town situated on the south-eastern border of Dartmoor, in a ‘fertile valley’ suited to livestock farming, had prospered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a centre of woollen cloth manufacturing and as ‘a great thoroughfare’ for traffic between Plymouth and London. The production of a coarse cloth known as long ells continued to be the town’s ‘staple trade’, employing ‘a great many hands’, but this had reached its peak by the 1820s and depended heavily on access through the East India Company to the Chinese market. There was only residual tin and copper mining in the vicinity. A sizeable population of minor gentry, clergymen and professionals resided in the town.3

The borough boundary was ‘imperfectly known’ but encompassed the whole of the town and a considerable area of the surrounding parish; beyond this, certain ‘scattered’ properties also conferred a right of voting, while others in intermediate locations ‘afforded no qualification’. The franchise was in ‘freeholders having lands and tenements holden of the borough’, irrespective of their value, and the representation was controlled by the joint lords of the manor, Robert Trefusis, 18th Baron Clinton, and Sir Lawrence Palk of Haldon, who appointed the portreeve, the returning officer for parliamentary elections.4 They were able to assign freeholds to their supporters for electoral purposes, which was known locally as ‘the broomstick system’, because voters were ‘as easily made as brooms’. Clinton’s interest was the stronger of the two and he reinforced his position through the purchase of property from one Winsor in 1828, which brought with it 28 votes. Palk, on the other hand, appears to have neglected his estate and burdened it with debt in order to finance the development of his property in Torquay. There remained a substantial minority of freeholders who were independent of the patrons, including some local businessmen and others, often non-residents, who had inherited plots of land. However, Clinton and Palk found it ‘in their interest to support each other’ and the ‘independent party in the borough’ was therefore ‘kept in subjection’. Apart from the ‘sham fight’ of 1784, there was no contested election between 1761 and 1831. Generous expenditure was nevertheless expected from the candidates during elections, and in 1830 the combined bill amounted to £1,027 18s. 3d.5 Palk, a Tory, returned himself from 1818 while Clinton, who had Grenvillite sympathies, nominated office-holders recommended by the prime minister, Lord Liverpool. There is no evidence of Clinton receiving payment for his seat, but members of his family benefited from government patronage and he became a lord of the bedchamber in 1827.6

In November 1820, following the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline, the portreeve convened a public meeting at St. Lawrence’s chapel where a congratulatory address to the queen was ‘carried without a dissentient voice’. Objections were raised to a proposed illumination, ‘on the ground of the danger accompanying it’, but an alternative celebration was arranged involving a procession of the trades, fireworks, and a dinner and ball. The inhabitants, ‘with very few exceptions, displayed their feelings in the strongest manner’, and six hogsheads of beer and cider and 1,500 loaves of bread were distributed. Another meeting was held to organize a loyal address to the king, 24 Jan. 1821, but it was claimed that only 13 supported this whereas an amendment calling for inquiry into economic distress and the burden of taxation was ‘carried by a great majority’.7 The inhabitants sent petitions to the Commons for repeal of the coal duties, 25 Feb. 1824, 23 Feb. 1825, when they also pressed for repeal of the house and window taxes; the manufacturers and inhabitants petitioned against removing the prohibition on wool exports, 25 Mar. 1824.8 Following a requisition ‘signed by several respectable persons’ the portreeve summoned a meeting, 18 Mar., which ‘unanimously’ adopted an anti-slavery petition and forwarded it to the Commons, 25 Mar. 1824. The Independents presented a petition for inquiry into the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 31 May 1824, and the inhabitants again petitioned against slavery, 28 Feb. 1826.9 Anti-Catholic petitions were sent to Parliament by the portreeve, freeholders and principal inhabitants, 18, 19 Apr. 1825; the clergy and inhabitants similarly petitioned the Lords, 26 Mar. 1827.10 Ashburton was presumably represented in the large Devon petition against emancipation in 1829, as nothing was sent from the borough. Palk continued to oppose concession but Sturges Bourne, like his patron Clinton, supported the Wellington ministry’s bill. The Protestant Dissenters forwarded petitions for repeal of the Test Acts to the Commons in June 1827 and both Houses in February 1828.11 Petitions for abolition of the death penalty for forgery were received from the inhabitants, 12 May, and the Independents and Congregationalists, 24 June 1830.12

Several anti-slavery petitions from the portreeve and inhabitants, and from Protestant Dissenters, were sent to Parliament in November 1830.13 On 23 Dec. 1830 a ‘very numerous meeting’ was convened by the portreeve, Henry Gervis, to petition the Commons for ‘a system of general retrenchment and economy’ and a revision of tithes. The attorney Robert Tucker, who had recently succeeded his father Dr. Andrew Tucker as the steward of Clinton’s estate, called for the abolition of ‘all sinecures, useless places and pensions’ and a reduction of taxes on the ‘necessaries of life’, and he held the tithes system largely responsible for agricultural distress. The tithes petition was duly presented, 11 Feb. 1831, but the other was apparently not received.14 A petition from the portreeve, freeholders and inhabitants in favour of parliamentary reform was presented to the Commons by Lord Ebrington, the Whig county Member, 9 Feb.15 Later that month Clinton, who had retained his household appointment when Lord Grey’s ministry was formed, used the by-election occasioned by Charles Arbuthnot’s resignation to return his father-in-law, William Poyntz, a supporter of reform and a relative of Lord Althorp, the leader of the Commons.16 Gervis summoned another public meeting, 18 Mar., when Andrew Tucker moved an address to the king in support of the ministry’s reform bill, which it was declared would ‘wisely renovate’ a constitution weakened by ‘the secret sappings of corruption’; a similarly worded petition to the Commons was presented by Ebrington, 22 Mar. 1831.17 Poyntz supported the bill, which proposed to enfranchise the £10 householders but reduce the borough’s representation to one seat, whereas Palk opposed it. At the ensuing general election Poyntz announced that he would stand ‘unconnected with any other candidate or interest whatever’. Andrew Tucker apparently intended to offer as a second reform candidate, but he withdrew in favour of the political economist Robert Torrens, who accepted an invitation from some ‘leading gentlemen’ acting on behalf of the ‘independent freeholders’ and secured financial assistance from the government. Torrens’s canvass was reportedly ‘extremely successful’ and Palk, who was supported by ‘the Tory interest in the county’ and ‘personally canvassed’ the voters resident in Plymouth, was considered to be in danger of losing his seat.18

During the election Ashburton was ‘one continued scene of bustle and excitement’, with ‘visitors from all the neighbouring towns and parishes ... constantly pouring in to witness the proceedings’. Palk was nominated by the Rev. S. White and Colonel Drake, who denounced the reform bill as ‘far too sweeping’ and emphasized the probable loss of one of the borough’s seats. Poyntz was sponsored by John Henry Seale of Dartmouth and Henry Gervis junior, and Torrens was introduced by Andrew Tucker and the attorney Benjamin Parham. Palk, who was surrounded by a phalanx of clergymen, ‘admitted some reform to be necessary’. Poyntz confirmed his support for the bill ‘in all its essentials’ and described himself as ‘a steady and tried friend of retrenchment’. Torrens maintained that he was standing solely in order to give the electors an opportunity of returning a representative committed to the principle of reform. He repeated his offer to withdraw if Palk would pledge support for the bill, but this was declined. The show of hands was called for Poyntz and Torrens, and Palk demanded a poll, which commenced at 4 o’clock. Only two split votes for Poyntz and Torrens had been cast by the end of the day. The long period that had elapsed since the last contest and doubts as to the exact nature of the franchise meant that the election became a protracted ‘scrutiny’, in which voters were required to produce legal proof of their entitlement and every case was ‘minutely inquired into’. Palk brought in two barristers and six attorneys to represent him, while Poyntz and Torrens relied mainly on the legal ingenuity of their respective advocates, Robert and Andrew Tucker. The crucial issue surrounded the claim made by Palk’s lawyers that voters had to show they were freeholders paying borough rent (which was collected by Palk’s steward, Robert Abraham); this was successfully countered by Robert Tucker, who established that it was sufficient for them to have been admitted as free tenants in the borough court and to have done suit and service there. Poyntz was always ‘decidedly secure’ at the head of the poll. On the second day Palk’s supporters ‘voted plumpers’ and at the close he led Torrens by 20 votes to 18. However, his cause had suffered another setback with Gervis’s rejection of a ‘broomstick’ voter who had only recently obtained his title deed, a decision that ‘inspired the liberals with a sure presage of success’. From the third day onwards Palk’s friends split their votes with Poyntz, thereby helping to preserve the good-natured atmosphere of the contest, although some suspected this of being a ‘manoeuvre ... for the purpose of neutralizing Poyntz’s advocate’. Torrens overtook Palk by four votes on the third day, increased his lead to six on the fourth and held his advantage on the fifth, when ‘both parties put forth their utmost strength’. Towards the end of that day ‘another of the baronet’s broomsticks was rejected’, and only one more vote was polled afterwards. Torrens was sufficiently unsure of his position to write to lord chancellor Brougham that ‘the Tories continue a desperate combat. Driven from the county they chance every move to retain Ashburton’; he asked for the treasury to ‘reserve a seat for me should I fail here’. However, the next morning Robert Palk announced his brother’s retirement. Poyntz and Torrens were declared elected and seated together in a chariot, which was ‘drawn in triumph through every street ... accompanied by music and banners and an immense and delighted procession, in which nearly all the respectable inhabitants ... participated’. It was claimed that ‘many bona fide voters remained unpolled’. According to the Tory Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, ‘not a single friend’ of Poyntz’s had done other than split with Torrens, and on the fourth and fifth days Poyntz had released those who had pledged plumpers for him and encouraged them to split with Torrens so as to ensure the latter’s success. Robert Tucker, in a public letter, unconvincingly rejected the assertion that a coalition had existed between the Poyntz and Torrens camps. Tory complaints were also directed against Gervis, who was a surgeon and apothecary and yet had taken no legal advice when making decisions about the eligibility of voters.19 No pollbook has survived, but it was later stated that 101 had voted. A partial analysis of the electorate subsequently produced by Robert Tucker suggests that many of Palk’s supporters came from the gentry, clergy and professions, or were his own relatives, and that few were actually his tenants; Poyntz was apparently supported by most of the woollen manufacturers.20

In July 1831 a memorial signed by 60 individuals was sent to the home secretary, Lord Melbourne, stating the case for removing Ashburton from schedule B of the reintroduced reform bill. It was argued that the 1821 census had been ‘most negligently taken’, omitting 86 houses, and that the real population at that time ‘exceeded 4,000’. Additionally, it was claimed that the borough included the manor of Halshanger, which extended into the adjoining rural parish of Ilsington. Moreover, Ashburton’s importance was ‘not confined to the mere limits of the borough’, as the woollen manufacturers employed ‘more than 1,000 weavers and ... labourers’ in other parishes.21 Poyntz presented a petition from Ilsington requesting its continued inclusion in the borough, which should return two Members, 22 July. Five days later he and Torrens reiterated the arguments contained in the memorial, but Lord John Russell explained that the borough did not consist of the whole parish and he dismissed the claims regarding the population in 1821; Ashburton therefore remained in schedule B. Gervis summoned a public meeting by requisition, 26 Sept., when Robert Tucker and the woollen manufacturer Richard Caunter moved to petition the Lords for the bill’s speedy passage; this was agreed ‘without a dissenting voice’, signed by ‘nearly every householder in the town’ and presented by Clinton, 4 Oct. At another ‘numerous meeting’ chaired by Gervis, 13 Oct., an address to the king in support of ministers was ‘unanimously adopted’ and a vote of thanks given to the Members.22 When Russell announced the new criteria to be applied in the revised bill, 12 Dec. 1831, he referred to Ashburton as ‘the last of the 56’ boroughs scheduled for complete disfranchisement, but in fact it narrowly escaped as it contained 436 houses and paid £355 in assessed taxes, placing it 58th in the list of the smallest English boroughs. Its position in schedule B was confirmed, 23 Feb. 1832, by which time boundary commissioners had visited the borough, rejected the claim made by the new portreeve, Peter Spark, that the borough and parish were coextensive and reported that no one from Halshanger had been allowed to vote since 1734.23 On 14 May the inhabitants agreed a petition urging the Commons to withhold supplies until the bill was passed; Ebrington presented it, 23 May 1832.24

The commissioners recommended that the borough limits be extended to cover the whole parish, but Ashburton was still one of the smallest English boroughs in the reformed electoral system, with only 198 registered electors in 1832, of whom 146 were householders and 52 freeholders.25 At the general election that year Poyntz was returned unopposed as a supporter of retrenchment and reform,26 and he sat until 1835 when he was elected for Midhurst. The Liberals, whose leaders included Robert Tucker and Caunter, became the dominant force in Ashburton politics, whilst the influence of the old patrons diminished. Palk had put his property on the market after his election defeat, and following Clinton’s death in October 1832 his Tory successor, who sacked Robert Tucker from the stewardship, was politically isolated. During the 1830s and 1840s Ashburton faced economic ruin owing to the collapse of the woollen trade, after the East India Company lost its monopoly of the Chinese trade, and to the advent of the South Devon railway, which by-passed the town and ‘killed the greater part of its coach and wagon traffic’. The Liberals sought men with East Indian connections to help repair the town’s fortunes, and William Jardine was thus returned in 1841, to be followed in 1843 by James Matheson, who purchased Palk’s estate and made Robert Tucker his steward. However, they and their successors could not prevent Ashburton’s continued economic decline and in 1868 it was disfranchised.27

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 494. The portreeve’s estimate of about 230 (ibid.) would haveincluded many fictitious voters.
  • 2. The figure for 1821 is for the parish, whose population in 1831 was 4,165 (ibid. xxxviii. 113-14).
  • 3. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 175-6; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 461-3; W. Hoskins, Devon, 320-1; F. Pilkington, Ashburton, 21-28, 64-69.
  • 4. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 56-57; xxxvii. 117-19; xxxviii. 113-14.
  • 5. Devon RO, Rolle mss 96M/88/17, list of leaseholders, 1827; 88/19, R. Tucker to Clinton, 13 Mar. 1828; 924B/B9/4, list of out-voters, n.d.; Palk mss 58/9/135/8/1, 1830 election bill; Western Times, 13 Nov. 1830; H. Hanham, ‘Ashburton as a Parliamentary Borough, 1640-1868’, Trans. Devon Assoc. xcviii (1966), 206-10, 219-39.
  • 6. Add. 38272, f. 63; 38279, f. 238; 38578, f. 82.
  • 7. Alfred, 21 Nov., 12 Dec. 1820, 2, 30 Jan., 6 Feb. 1821.
  • 8. CJ, lxxix. 97, 210; lxxx. 118, 119.
  • 9. Alfred, 2 Mar. 1824; CJ, lxxix. 210, 436; lxxxi. 111.
  • 10. CJ, lxxx. 320; LJ, lvii. 577; lix. 197.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxii. 517, 520; lxxxiii. 87, 100; LJ, lx. 65, 75.
  • 12. CJ, lxxxv. 410; LJ, lxii. 770.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxvi. 38, 56; LJ, lxiii. 19, 40, 72.
  • 14. N. Devon Jnl. 30 Dec. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 236.
  • 15. CJ, lxxxvi. 226.
  • 16. Arbuthnot Corresp. 142 A-B.
  • 17. Alfred, 22 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 419.
  • 18. Alfred, 26 Apr., 10 May; Plymouth Jnl. 28 Apr.; R. Devonport Telegraph, 30 Apr.; Western Times, 14 May; Brougham mss, Ellice to Brougham, 17 May 1831.
  • 19. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 5, 12 May; Plymouth Herald, 7 May; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 7 May; Western Times, 14 May; Brougham mss, Torrens to Brougham, 5 May 1831.
  • 20. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 494; Rolle mss 96M/88/19, canvassing list [1831-2]; Hanham, 237-8.
  • 21. PP (1831), xvi. 3-5.
  • 22. Western Times, 1, 22 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1045.
  • 23. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 56-57; xxxvii. 117-19; xxxviii. 113-14.
  • 24. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 19 May 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 332.
  • 25. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 113-14; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 75, 96.
  • 26. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 15 Dec. 1832.
  • 27. Hoskins, 320-1; Pilkington, 76-77; Hanham, 239-50.