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 the freemen

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 71 in 1830

Number of voters:

36 in 1831


7,543 (1821); 7,396 (1831)


2 June 1820DAVID GUARDI KER vice McClintock, vacated his seat 
 James Talbot2
 James Talbot3

Main Article

Athlone, located half in Westmeath and half in Roscommon on the Shannon, possessed ‘great advantages of water communication’, but its inland market had ‘gone into decay’ and it was ‘without any extensive manufactories’. The ‘strongest feeling of hostility’ existed between its predominantly Catholic inhabitants and the self-elected Protestant corporation of two bailiffs and 14 burgesses (including the annually elected sovereign), all connected with the family of its patron William Handcock, 1st Baron Castlemaine, whose control as governor and constable made the borough ‘one of the closest in the kingdom’. (Of the 12 burgesses named by the municipal corporations commissioners, six were from Castlemaine’s immediate family, three were related by marriage, and two were his nephews.) The offices of sovereign and vice-sovereign were held by his brother Richard in alternate years from 1798 to 1816 and thereafter by his nephew of the same name. Their annual salary of £100 and the payment of other ‘municipal officers who render no service to the community’ were the subject of frequent complaints by the inhabitants, who contended that they violated ‘the express provisions’ of the charter. Their attempts to open the borough and obtain the franchise, however, proved unsuccessful, and by 1830 there were approximately 38 non-resident and 33 resident freemen, all admitted by favour, since no right by birth, service or marriage had ever been recognized.1 Castlemaine continued to seek election to the Irish representative peerage in return for his support of Tory governments, but as the Wellington ministry’s Irish secretary Lord Francis Leveson Gower noted when reviewing his case in 1829, it was difficult to be ‘favourably disposed to an individual who has so few personal recommendations as Lord Castlemaine’ and ‘to place the certainty of his constant support of government beyond a doubt’.2

At the 1820 general election Castlemaine returned his kinsman John McClintock of Drumcar, County Louth, as a stopgap prior to seating David Ker of Portavo, County Down, who supported the Liverpool administration but cast no known votes on the Catholic question.3 A petition from the ‘disfranchised and degraded’ inhabitants complaining that their right of returning a Member to ‘support their commercial and other interests’ was ‘sold like a cow or a horse at a fair or market’ and calling for the exclusion of non-resident freemen and restoration of their corporate rights was presented to the Commons, 24 Feb. 1824.4 Rumours of an impending dissolution the following year prompted Castlemaine, who intended ‘by every means’ to ‘support the principles so manfully advocated in the House of Lords’ by the duke of York, to ask Peel, the home secretary, to ‘name any friend of yours who you would like to see in the House’, but he declined to do so.5

At the 1826 general election the ‘independents’ seemed poised to make a challenge, but on behalf of the corporation Castlemaine’s brother Richard agreed to consider a report of the inhabitants calling for measures to promote the prosperity and trade of Athlone, including a revision of its widely criticized tolls and customs. Handcock’s son Richard, who had served in alternate years as sovereign and vice-sovereign from 1816, then came forward, promising to address ‘the grievances of which the public complain’. He was returned unopposed.6 Dissatisfaction with the new agreement on tolls, which was finalized on 16 Oct. 1826, prompted petitions from several inhabitants for restoration of their corporate rights and the abolition of Irish tolls and customs, which reached the Commons, 24 Nov. 1826, and the Lords, 22 Mar. 1827.7 A petition from three inhabitants alleging that Handcock had been returned by ‘subterfuge’ without the necessary notices being given and the required number of burgesses present, and contending that the corporation had ‘died a natural death’ and should be dissolved, was presented to the Commons, 1 Dec., but disallowed as it did not appear that the petitioners were electors, 4 Dec. 1826. Next day Thomas Flanagan of Sligo, claiming to be an ‘agent for certain inhabitants of Athlone’, successfully petitioned for extra time to prepare a fresh one, which was presented in similar terms in the name of James Dillon and other voters, 8 Feb., but lapsed, 23 Feb. 1827.8 Nevertheless, on 13 Mar. Handcock presented a counter-petition from the three petitioners of December, complaining that their names had been forged by Flanagan, for which he was charged and investigated, 25 May, and brought before the bar of the House for committal to Newgate, 19 June 1827. Another petition from Flanagan, denouncing the corporation and complaining of the state of Athlone bridge, reached the Commons, 5 Apr. 1827.9

Handcock opposed Catholic claims, in favour of which Athlone petitions were presented to the Commons, 6 Mar. 1827, 14 Feb. 1828, 12, 24 Feb. 1829, and the Lords, 23 Feb. 1827, 24 Mar. 1829. Hostile ones reached the Commons, 12 Feb. 1827, 28 Apr. 1828, 18 Feb. 1829, and the Lords, 9 Mar. 1827, 23 Feb. 1829, the last of which urged government to suppress the Catholic Association.10 A petition from Athlone Liberal Club, which ‘in obedience with laws’ had been dissolved on 11 Mar. 1829, complaining that there were only 18 resident freemen and denouncing the ‘unconstitutional and debasing system’ which excluded them from the franchise, was presented to the Commons, 5 June 1829.11 Later that year 350 ‘respectable’ residents applied for their freedom and tendered £10 each, but being assumed to be hostile to the Handcock family they were all refused’. Some subsequently ‘took oaths’ before a magistrate and petitions reached the Commons for ‘relief from their municipal oppressors’, 22 Mar., and from the brogue makers whose claims had ‘never been attended to’, 3 June 1830. Another in the name of Dillon for a correct return of the number of freemen was presented, 6 Apr. 1830.12

At the 1830 general election Handcock was opposed by James Talbot of Evercreech, Somerset, who came forward for the ‘independents’, allegedly ‘at the suggestion of one or two agitating characters in the borough’. According to the loyalist press, Handcock, who was easily returned, received the support of ‘all the wealth, rank and respectability’ of the town, ‘both mercantile and private’, while all those with ‘unwashed hands, dirty shirts and tattered garments, rush[ed] to the poll for Talbot’, who was said to have only two qualified freemen on his side. A petition alleging partiality by the returning officer Richard Telford, who had rejected votes for Talbot and illegally refused him permission to inspect the books and papers, was presented, 16 Nov. 1830, but the committee found in Handcock’s favour, 16 Mar. 1831, apparently on the ground that although the rejected voters had taken oaths before a magistrate, they had not been sworn six months before the election.13 A petition for inquiry into the corporation and the application of its funds reached the Commons, 12 Nov. 1830. Petitions from the Catholics for a reduction of the grant to the Kildare Place Society and an ‘enlightened and religious system of education’ were presented to the Lords, 10 Dec. 1830, 13 Sept. 1831.14

At the 1831 general election Handcock pledged to continue his opposition to the Grey ministry’s ‘revolutionary’ reform bill and to ‘maintain the rights, liberties and franchises of this corporation’. He was returned after another brief contest with Talbot, who was expected to petition, but did not.15 A reform petition calling on ministers to throw open the Irish boroughs and extend the franchise to £5 householders reached the Lords, 3 Aug.16 The admission of 165 men (of whom 147 never took oaths) on 24 June 1831, to bolster Castlemaine’s interest, brought the nominal number of freemen to 237, but this move was frustrated by the Irish Reform Act, which restricted the franchise to the 33 resident freemen admitted before 1 Mar. 1831, to whom were added a further 210 £10 householders, giving a total reformed constituency of 243.17 Finding that there was no known boundary, the commissioners drew ‘a line as closely as possible about the town’.18 At the 1832 general election Talbot was returned as a Liberal after a close contest with Handcock, who in 1841 successfully asked the Conservative premier Peel to support his election to a representative peerage on account of his family’s ‘endeavours to recover what we have at present lost in Westmeath and Athlone’.19

Author: Philip Salmon


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xliii. 5-7; (1833), xxxix. 17, 158; (1835), xxvii. 326-36; CJ, lxxix. 91.
  • 2. Wellington mss WP1/914/49; NAI, Leveson Gower letterbks. 7B/3/31, Leveson Gower to Singleton, 30 May 1829.
  • 3. Dublin Evening Post, 30 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. CJ, lxxix. 91.
  • 5. Add. 40381, f. 230.
  • 6. Westmeath Jnl. 8, 22 June 1826.
  • 7. PP (1835), xxvii. 382; CJ, lxxxii. 30; LJ, lix. 193.
  • 8. CJ, lxxxii. 51, 75, 91, 136, 217.
  • 9. Ibid. 311, 390, 491, 577, 582; The Times, 20 June 1827.
  • 10. CJ, lxxxii. 154, 285; lxxxiii. 56, 277; lxxxiv. 24, 49, 81; LJ, lix. 100, 147; lxi. 69, 265.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxiv. 387.
  • 12. Ibid. lxxxv. 212, 270, 505; PP (1835), xxvii. 327.
  • 13. PP (1835), xxvii. 327; Kilkenny Moderator, 11 Aug. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 94, 357, 385.
  • 14. CJ, lxxxvi. 61; LJ, lxiii. 166, 974.
  • 15. Kilkenny Moderator, 30 Apr.; Westmeath Jnl. 12 May 1831.
  • 16. LJ, lxiii. 891.
  • 17. PP (1831-2), xliii. 5-7; (1835), xxvii. 327. Various and conflicting accounts of the number of qualified freemen are provided by these reports.
  • 18. PP (1831-2), xliii. 5.
  • 19. Add. 40429, f. 138.