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 and inhabitant householders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 1,100

Number of voters:

914 in 1830


5,466 (1821); 6,959 (1831)


 Lord John Russell490

Main Article

Bedford was a thriving and expanding market town and social centre, with a steady trade in corn, timber and coals by the River Ouse, and small manufactures of lace and straw plat.1 The corporation consisted of a mayor, two bailiffs, an indefinite number of aldermen (that is, burgesses who had served as mayor, and totalling about 13 in this period) and 13 common councilmen. The mayor and bailiffs were elected annually by the freemen from three candidates nominated by the court of aldermen and three by the common councillors. The latter were elected by the freemen from 26 burgesses put forward by the aldermen. The burgesses, who were both hereditary and elective (at the behest of the corporation), were generally limited in number to about 40, sufficient to fill the municipal offices. In practice, therefore, the corporation was, in the words of the municipal corporations commissioners, ‘a select irresponsible body’. The freedom was obtainable by birth, apprenticeship, purchase and gift, and in the electoral conflicts of the eighteenth century heavy use had been made of the corporation’s unlimited power of creating freemen, for whom there was no residence requirement. After the mass creations of 1789-91, when the 5th duke of Bedford, the recorder, had re-established the Russell of Woburn Abbey interest, in alliance with the corporation, new admissions were comparatively few: there were only 17 in this period, when 38 burgesses were also created. Although Dissenters were numerous in Bedford, they were deemed ineligible for election to the corporation before the repeal of the Test Acts, and even afterwards were generally considered to be undesirable.2 The corporation, seen by their opponents as the creatures of the 6th duke of Bedford, recorder and patron of one seat since 1802, had a majority among the trustees of the valuable Harpur Charity, which produced from the rents of property in the Holborn area of London a substantial revenue for statutory educational and welfare purposes, and provided the corporation with its largest source of patronage. There was increasing resentment among the inhabitants of the extent of corporation influence over the administration of the charity.3 The other seat had been occupied since 1775 by a Member of the Whitbread family of nearby Cardington and Southill, old Bedfordshire minor gentry whose great fortune was founded on their London porter brewery. Although there had been no contest since the acrimonious one of 1790, the sizeable electorate, in which inhabitant householders outnumbered freemen by over four to one, was not amenable to arbitrary dictation, and the Russell and Whitbread interests, which required attentive management, were based on property, wealth and a tradition of municipal beneficence. Party feeling was strong in Bedford, where the presence of the Russells gave a national dimension to local politics; and as both the dominant families were staunchly Whig, their Tory opponents in a town in which anti-Catholicism was strong adopted the language of electoral independence.4

At the general election of 1820 there was no opposition to the return of the sitting Members, Bedford’s second son, Lord William Russell, a half-pay army officer, intelligent but indolent, and William Whitbread, the dim elder son of Samuel, a major figure in national politics until his suicide in 1815, who never remotely threatened (or indeed wished) to match his father’s eminence. The only disturbance, as Russell reported, was some heckling by ‘the mob’ of Whitbread’s proposer, John Foster of Brickhills, for supporting the corn law of 1815.5 On 11 July 1820 Foster, George Livius, the Rev. Samuel Hillyard, minister of the Old Meeting, and the Rev. Isaac Antonie were prominent at a meeting called to address Queen Caroline on her arrival in England; it was condemned as the act of a political party by their opponents.6 There was a general illumination to celebrate the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties in November.7 At the town meeting of 29 Dec. 1820 to address the queen and petition in her support, which was dominated by Charles Fyshe Palmer of Ickwell, Whig Member for Reading, the Tory surgeon John Pulley, an inveterate opponent of the Russells, attacked the Whigs for obstructing government and encouraging disaffection, and moved a wrecking amendment. It was supported by his brother Henry, a draper, Charles Hine, another surgeon, and Theed Pearse, the town clerk, and was only narrowly rejected. They and other Bedford men were among the signatories of the county loyal address, 15 Jan. 1821.8 Neither of the Members attended the meeting, but Russell presented the petition, 24 Jan., and both voted with opposition on the queen’s case in that and the following month.9

Russell, whose domineering and difficult wife disliked English life, went abroad with her in June 1821 and did not return for almost two years. His father, commenting on his supposed lapse into Toryism at the end of 1821, remarked that it would be as well if he stayed away for the next session, for if he was present and failed to support the parliamentary campaign for economy and retrenchment he would damage himself with many of the electors.10 Whitbread was very far from being a dedicated attender, but he was at least mostly on the spot and careful to fulfil the routine obligations required of a borough Member. He presented the local tradesmen’s petition for repeal of the Insolvent Debtors Act, 18 Feb. 1823.11 In early April that year Bedford told Russell that his younger brother, Lord John, the leading proponent of parliamentary reform in the Commons, was anxious for him to come home so that ‘your name may appear in every division, to the comfort of your constituents, after your long truancy’.12 Russell arrived soon afterwards and resumed his somewhat desultory attendance of the House. Petitions were presented to the Commons for the abolition of slavery, 8 Mar., and inquiry into the prosecution of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 31 May 1824, and against alteration of the corn laws, 26 Apr. 1825.13 In 1826 the trustees of the Harpur Charity, which was running into some financial difficulty as leases neared their end, secured the introduction of a bill to amend the regulating Act of 1793. This measure, which was handled by Whitbread and received royal assent on 26 May (7 Geo. IV, c. 29), failed to take due account of changed circumstances, which had made the Holborn area a less desirable residential area of London than hitherto, and allotted the trust’s expenditure to education and welfare in the same proportions as under the old Act, despite the greatly increased financial requirements of the former and the outmoded aspects of the latter. These potential sources of grievance were combined with a dangerous enlargement of the trustees’ powers, in that as few as eight of them were authorized to petition the lord chancellor for changes.14

Russell and Whitbread were returned without opposition at the general election of 1826, when both acknowledged the recent liberalization of the Liverpool ministry’s policies, but advocated further tax reductions and parliamentary reform, while stating their support for fair protection for domestic corn producers. Russell was reported to have offered to resign his seat if his support for Catholic relief proved unacceptable to a majority of the electors.15 At a meeting to celebrate the return of the Tory Macqueen for the county at the expense of one of the Whig sitting Members, 11 Aug., Pulley attacked the Russells, made allegations concerning the 5th duke of Bedford’s corrupt and overbearing conduct in 1790-1, and called on the independent electors to rebel against the ‘infringement of their rights’ which had been perpetrated then and perpetuated since.16 Although Russell apparently raised his stock in Bedford with his vigorous speech from the county hustings in defence of his elder brother Lord Tavistock, who came in with Macqueen, his father, after subscribing £200 in his own name and £100 in Russell’s to the fund for the new infirmary, was becoming worried by his son’s indifference to the forms required of a borough Member and his consequent ‘unpopularity’ in Bedford. When he heard from Lady Holland that Russell was inclined to cut the races in September, he passed on through her his hope that he would have ‘the grace to go there’, as ‘the Member for the town should think of his duty only, without regard to dullness’. In the event, Russell showed his face for one day. Tavistock, who had fought the county election on a strict purity of election platform, feared that the general ‘decline in public principle’, which made many electors keen to feather their own nests, would ‘soon upset my father’s influence in the borough, or Whitbread’s’.17 Russell, who had been back on full pay with command of a cavalry regiment for two years, attended the annual mayoral feast at Bedford, 29 Sept. 1826, but evidently offered to hand over the seat to Lord John, who had been defeated in Huntingdonshire at the general election and was earmarked for an Irish pocket borough. His father would not hear of it, and gave him a lecture:

It is quite right to attend those civic festivals, and it is expected of those who represent corporate towns ... We out of place Whigs have no other means of showing attentions to the corporations ... If the town of Bedford should hereafter decline to return you as the corporation Member, my connection with the corporation will of course cease. But I have full confidence in your keeping up the family interest, which is in your hands ... You say you are not conscious of neglecting any of your duties at Bedford. It has been whispered to me that you gave offence by not dining with the mayor last year, not even sending an excuse, though you were within the short distance of 40 miles; also by skipping the lace ball this year, which is a deep offence from the Member to the town (especially among the ladies) ... I have stated openly and without reserve everything I have heard, and leave the rest to you.

The customary distribution of coals to the poor was made in his name at Christmas.18

Bedford heard in February 1827 that ‘the Bedfordians grumble very much’ at the failure of either of their Members to vote in a recent division against the duke of Clarence’s grant.19 Agriculturists of the town petitioned the Commons against alteration of the corn laws, 23 Mar.; and Protestant Dissenters did so for repeal of the Test Acts, 6, 7 June 1827, 26 Feb. 1828, when both Members voted for that measure.20 In September 1828 Russell, whose private life was in some turmoil, gave up his regiment, went back on half-pay and returned to Switzerland to join his pregnant wife, who was to be confined in Italy. He left England without attending the mayor’s feast, to the irritation of his father, even though he partially blamed himself for forgetting to remind him of its imminence:

Your absence I understand excited much discontent, and no apology was made for you. You also forgot to give any directions about game, so none was sent for you ... an unpardonable offence in the eyes and to the appetites of a ‘corporation of Bedford’ whose love of good cheer is upon record. It is the universal custom for the Members of a corporate town to attend the mayor’s feast, unless unavoidably prevented, and your colleague (though not the corporation Member) came from a considerable distance to attend the dinner.

Yet when Russell claimed that he had sent a written apology to the mayor, Bedford forgave him, blamed the mayor and Tavistock for not communicating it, and assured him that there was no need for him to give up his seat, or indeed to attend the House until his wife had safely given birth. In February 1829, Lord John, though keen for him to come over if possible to support Catholic emancipation, explained that he had not intended to press him to do so before the confinement:

Nor indeed should I say it was necessary at all were it not for the town of Bedford, which is falling into a stage of great discontent at the nullity of their Member. Your leaving England the day of the mayor’s feast made him (the mayor) angry with the family, and my father finds it difficult to keep up his interest.

He brought the same argument to bear on Lady William, when trying to persuade her to settle in England with her husband: ‘I can assure you that if he does not alter his ways, my father will have to spend several thousand pounds to keep his seat for him at Bedford’.21 Lord Holland, whose estate at Ampthill gave him a stake in the county, encouraged Bedford to try to get up a petition in favour of emancipation from the corporation; but the duke told him that Tavistock and Dr. Philip Hunt, rector of St. Peter’s, one of the Russells’ leading supporters, were

decidedly adverse to attempting it, and I think with reason. It would be ‘stirring the coals’ of Bedford with a vengeance, and would raise such a flame, as would not easily be extinguished. We are now endeavouring to keep the No Popery men quiet, if possible, but if a petition was voted by the corporation in favour of the Catholics, the adverse party would be roused instantly, a general meeting would be called, and a petition against concession carried by the yells of an ignorant and brutal mob. It is even doubtful whether we could carry the corporate body with us, in favour of concession; and if we did, where would be the advantage? People would say, it was my corporation, and I made them petition. Be assured, it will be the best policy to have them quiet. The parsons are inflaming the minds of the lower orders, by printing, reading from the pulpit, etc.22

The chaplain of the Bedford workhouse was rebuked by its directors for using a sermon to rant against Catholic emancipation. The inhabitants duly petitioned the Commons, 18 Mar., and the Lords, 20 Mar. 1829, against the measure.

Russell reached England in April 1829, bought the lieutenant-colonelcy of an infantry regiment then stationed in the Ionian Islands and before returning to the continent in early June wrote at Tavistock’s prompting to Alderman Francis Green, his proposer at the last election, offering to resign his seat, though he privately considered his brother to be ‘shortsighted in his policy’. According to Tavistock’s later account, ‘a consultation of a few friends was then held, his offer made known to them, and ... they came to a resolution not to accept it, but to suggest to him the propriety of resigning in favour of his brother [Lord John] at the next general election’. Whether the duke knew of this episode is not clear. On 18 Sept. 1829 Tavistock, who feared for the family interest if Russell did not see sense, wrote testily to him at Berne:

With regard to Bedford, I have nothing more to say to you. My informants have been Palmer, Dr. Hunt and Green. Whatever you may think of the former, you will not suspect either of the others of being unfriendly either to you or to me. They have a notion that you do not attend your duty with assiduity, and that you are wanting in proper respect and attention to the corporation. These are unpleasant reports to me as well as to yourself, but I give them to you because I think it right that you should know exactly what is passing. You are quite mistaken if you think that I consider your attendance at the mayor’s feast as of no consequence to your political interests; far from it, I never was more annoyed than at your leaving England last year on the very day of the dinner, and your not coming on a former occasion ... However, all this matters very little now; the town will probably be lost to us whenever a general election takes place.23

Yet a few months later Lord John assured Russell, who had recently talked to him of quitting Parliament, that as his military prospects rested on his staying with his regiment until it came home, there was no need for him to come back for the next session, provided he returned in the summer with the intention of staying and fulfilling his obligations for at least a year: ‘Depend upon it the Bedfordians will be quiet enough this year, if you appear in good time next’.24

On the death in June 1830 of George IV, which heralded a general election, the duke peremptorily informed Russell, who was in Italy, that he had decided to start Lord John (having also considered putting up Tavistock’s son, Lord Russell*, who was about to come of age) for Bedford. Subsequently elaborating on the decision, he and Lord John assured Russell that

it was the universal opinion at Bedford, among friend and foe, that you could not offer yourself ... without the certainty of a contest, and the strong probability of a defeat, in which case I should have lost the borough for ever, for I never could have attempted it again. There was but one universal opinion, both in the corporation and in the town, as to your non-efficiency as a Member, and it would have been childish and absurd in me not to have yielded to that opinion. John is anxious that you should bear him harmless in your estimation as to the whole of the transaction. It was to comply with my wishes that he has come forward, and I think his popularity will ensure a quiet and secure election.25

He was sadly mistaken. According to Richard Muggeridge, editor of the Tory Herts Mercury, Russell wrote secretly to the mayor to inform him of his intention of coming forward in his brother’s room, but his letter was leaked, causing great offence among the inhabitants. A challenger offered, 2 July, in the person of Frederick Polhill of nearby Howbury, a young and wealthy landowner, who had been cultivating the borough, especially its depressed shopkeepers and tradesmen, for some time. Russell and Whitbread formally declared themselves the following day. On the 4th, however, Russell went to Bedford with the intention of asking the family’s leading supporters to release him from his engagement so that he could accept a pressing invitation to stand again for Huntingdonshire, where he was sure of success, and to back Lord Russell instead. But, as Tavistock informed Lord William Russell, 5 July

he found the enemy ... already in possession of the field and intended to steal a march upon us. Under these circumstances it was thought John should not lose a moment in canvassing the town. An express was sent to Whitbread, so he and John and Polhill were hard at work all yesterday. It is well my father decided upon his standing in your place, for we should have had no case at all with you, and must have abandoned that seat altogether.

The Russells, who openly coalesced with Whitbread, believed that Polhill ‘relies on his money and his beer’, which he distributed in copious amounts. If Tavistock is to be believed, however, he ‘had a hard matter’ to keep his brother ‘out of all manner of illegal and corrupt expenses’, and as it was he got his hands sufficiently dirty in this respect.26 Russell’s national stature did him little good, and he was damaged by the publication of an extract from his recently published Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe, in which he had accused Methodists of ‘forgery, fanaticism and cunning’. His protestations that he had been quoted out of context, and allusions to his parliamentary campaign for repeal of the Test Acts, failed to appease many local Methodists, even though the Methodist Conference eventually intervened on his behalf.27 While Russell, who a week before the election was confident of finishing a close second behind Whitbread, laid some stress on his support for retrenchment and reform, the other candidates apparently said virtually nothing about politics. Polhill used the customary platitudes of independence, and Pulley, in nominating him, called on the electors to liberate themselves from their ‘state of servility and bondage’ and enraged the Russells by enlarging on his allegations concerning the late duke of Bedford’s corruption of the corporation and swamping of the electorate with servile freemen 40 years earlier.28 Polling lasted for the maximum allowable eight days and was punctuated by drunkenness, brawling and vicious verbal exchanges. At the close Whitbread had 513 votes, Polhill 489 and Russell three less: on the third day Polhill had trailed by 23, but he had steadily narrowed the gap with the votes of non-resident freemen. Many proffered votes had been referred to the assessor, whose adjudications took a further three days, after which the final figures were declared to be Whitbread 515, Polhill 491 and Russell 490. It was tempting for the Russell camp to ascribe Polhill’s narrow victory to the ‘casting vote’ of the mayor, Sir William Long, a brewer, who had had his son-in-law appointed assessor and was supposed to be sore at the duke over some failure of attention long ago; while it seems that Michael Angelo Taylor, Whig Member for Durham, and a non-resident freeman, only failed to turn up to vote for Russell because letters requesting his attendance failed to reach him. The votes of 170 individuals were rejected: between them they had offered 101 votes for Polhill, 76 for Whitbread and 69 for Russell. They included the occupants of some new Harpur Charity almshouses, whose votes, which were in a majority for the Whigs, were retrospectively annulled: it was alleged that some of them admitted having voted for Whitbread and Russell only from fear of being turned out by the trustees.29 In a parting address Russell, who privately claimed that at the death he had ‘cared little how it ended, so [long] as it came to a termination’, hinted at the possibility of a petition, and ascribed his defeat to broken promises, some complacency and the seduction of many voters by ‘the unfounded notion that they were establishing their independence, which had never been in danger’. Denis Le Marchant† commented that it was ‘the fault of his family. Through negligence they made a most wretched and imperfect canvass’.30

Of the 914 electors whose votes were admitted, 56 per cent supported Whitbread, 54 per cent Polhill and the same proportion Russell. Polhill received 318 plumpers (65 per cent of his total vote), Whitbread none and Russell only 14. Four-hundred-and-nine voters split for Whitbread and Russell: thus 741 voters (81 per cent of the total) cast party votes. Splits with Russell made up 79 per cent of Whitbread’s total, while he shared 106 with Polhill (21 per cent). Splits with Whitbread constituted 83 per cent of Russell’s total, and he shared 67 votes with Polhill (14 per cent). Those who voted were made up of 754 householders and 160 burgesses and freemen: of the latter, 61 were resident in the borough, 29 lived in the county, and 70 resided further afield. Sixty per cent of the householders supported Polhill, as against the 54 per cent of the electorate as a whole, while only 48 per cent voted for Russell. Of the burgesses and freemen, only 26 per cent supported Polhill, while 79 per cent voted for Russell and 76 for Whitbread. Among the residents the respective proportions were 36, 74 and 72 per cent; and among the non-residents, even more markedly in favour of the established interests, 20, 82 and 79 per cent. Of 29 resident burgesses, 23 split for the Whigs, while four, namely Long, Joseph Bass, and Charles and John Bradley, plumped for Polhill, and two, George and Thomas Nash, gave split votes for him. Of the 55 burgesses who voted, 43 split for Whitbread and Russell, eight plumped for Polhill and four cast split votes. Only 32 per cent of gentlemen and professionals supported Polhill, while 61 voted for Russell and 60 for Whitbread.31

Polhill’s victory was celebrated at a dinner chaired by Pulley and attended by Long and Alderman Kidman, 10 Sept. 1830, when Polhill announced that Tavistock had just informed him that the Russells did not intend to lodge a petition. Russell’s supporters got up a consolatory address, which was signed by 300 voters. According to Tavistock, there was a ‘gratifying’ demonstration of support for them at the mayor’s feast, when Lord Russell, who he was inclined to think would have been a more suitable candidate, was well received.32 The post mortem among the Russells dragged on for weeks, mainly because Lord William, sore at having been ditched, persistently argued, in the face of all reason, that he could have won the seat. Tavistock assured him that he would have had no hope, even though he personally had been in favour of ‘letting down the family interest by allowing you to take your chance’, only to be overruled by others, who felt that ‘it would not be right to give up the seat without trial, and that your standing would in fact be no trial at all’. He later told his brother, whose conduct he claimed to have done his best to justify, that Hunt and his cronies had taken upon themselves the responsibility of having advised him to withhold his tendered resignation until the general election and had been censured for this by other leading electors, including Palmer, who were thoroughly out of patience with his inattention. Bedford’s brother, old Lord William Russell*, took broadly the same line.33 Dr. Grant David Yeats, a burgess now resident in Tunbridge Wells, complained that his ‘quondam wretched townsmen, disgraced ... in rejecting Lord John ... have become the miserable tools of calumny and misrepresentations’, and that their political backwardness had made them unappreciative of Russell’s ‘unblemished and highly active public life’. He also reported that several electors had admitted voting for Polhill ‘because in the dearth in trade he had dealt with them, for they must attend as they said to their temporal concerns’. Hunt attributed the defeat to the ‘old leaven of bigotry’, which had even motivated the Moravians and Methodists and had been exacerbated by Lord John’s association with ‘dangerous doctrines, subversive of old mother church’; the self-interest of many tradesmen, who had supported a man ‘who was likely to spend much money amongst them’; traditional hostility to Russell pre-eminence in county and borough; and Polhill’s superior organization, through ‘a very numerous and shrewd set of agents’. He went on:

In short the upper classes here have shown themselves as illiberal as the lower classes have proved themselves unenlightened and ungrateful. As to the mob, or poor voters, they form now a very large class, as the franchise has been interpreted to extend to all inhabitant householders, whether paying rates or not; so that Bedford is almost a potwalloping borough, and on such voters casks of beer early distributed raised a clamorous but powerful body in favour of Polhill ... I fear Bedford has proved itself to be one of those wretched corrupt boroughs that require much caressing, and cajoling, and humouring. To be a favourite candidate, talents and eloquence and public services cannot be put in conjunction with dinners, and trading and giving free shooting quarters, and pandering to all these bad passions of bad electors.34

Although the duke was persuaded by Tavistock not to resign the recordership, which his son thought ‘could have done no good, and would have been the source of infinite mischief’, his view was that ‘the borough is gone, and for ever, unless when I am removed to another world, where there is neither strife nor bitterness, the Bedfordians should think better of their past conduct, and wish to renew their connection with my family’. In a last word on the subject to Lord William, he wrote:

I have never accused you of losing the borough ... Polhill’s triumph was brought about by anti-aristocratical, anti-Russell, and pro-corruption, pro-eating and drinking, and pro-Tory feelings. All these combined have got Mr. Polhill for them, and much good may he do them.35

The ‘friends of the independent interest’ with claims to the freedom were exhorted to contact Polhill’s chief agent; and at the court leet in October 1830 nine freemen and nine burgesses, including 13 non-residents, were admitted.36

Bedford Dissenters and others petitioned for the abolition of slavery in the new Parliament; and there was also a petitioning campaign for repeal of the duties on seaborne coal.37 Polhill, whose success the Wellington ministry had counted as a gain, voted with them on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, when Whitbread, typically, was caught out at dinner. At the end of December Muggeridge published his History of the last election, which combined reportage with polemic. As Tavistock told Lord William Russell, it abused Whitbread, and made ‘a sort of apology for rejecting John by laying all the blame upon your neglect and non-attention to your duties in Parliament’, as well as repeating the ‘old charges about the tyranny of the House of Russell, and the political thraldom in which the borough had been kept for so long by the two families’.38 At the town meeting called to petition for retrenchment, tax reductions and parliamentary reform, 17 Jan. 1831, Tavistock defended his family against the charge of electoral tyranny, indicated their willingness to sacrifice the freeman franchise at Bedford for the sake of reform and disingenuously claimed that their principal reason for not petitioning against Polhill’s return had been their discovery that whatever the outcome of a scrutiny, he would still have had a majority of resident votes. He insisted that the corporation had governed the town with ‘moderation’ and called on Pulley to retract his allegations against the duke of Bedford and his late brother. Pulley refused to do so, and reiterated his accusations that for 40 years the representation had been ‘transferred like the bullocks in a market’ by the Russell and Whitbread families and that the corporation had been largely controlled by the former. John Howard, a kinsman of the prison reformer, also attacked corporation influence, and pressed for the disfranchisement of non-resident freemen. Tavistock declared his support for the secret ballot, while Whitbread straightforwardly, and Polhill more circumspectly, promised to support the Grey ministry in their anticipated reform scheme. Whitbread presented the petition, 8 Feb., but Polhill had nothing to say on the occasion. Bedford subsequently wrote to the local press to assert that Pulley’s charge against his predecessor was ‘wholly devoid of truth’, but Pulley replied in kind; and the Russell’s case was later set out in a detailed Short Statement of Facts (1831), which not only dealt with the events of forty years ago, but defended their recent record, attacked the self-styled independents as rank Tories, who had ‘supported war, extravagance and corruption’, and pointed to the present duke’s ‘legitimate’ and beneficial expenditure of over £10,000 in Bedford in the past ten years.39 It was reported in early March 1831 that the ministerial reform bill had given ‘almost universal satisfaction’ in Bedford, where the Tories, or independents, hoped that its proposed disfranchisement of non-resident freemen would benefit them, while the Whigs welcomed the £10 franchise. The householders met to endorse the bill, 17 Mar., and Whitbread presented their petition on the 21st. Lord Russell waited on the king with corporation and town addresses in favour of the bill, 23 Mar.40 Whitbread voted for the second reading, as did Polhill, after speaking in its support, with the qualification that the £10 qualification was too high. Both voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831.

On the consequent dissolution, there was a half-hearted attempt by the supporters of the Russells to persuade Lord John to come forward with Whitbread, but he declined, pleading his commitment to stand for Devon. Whitbread and Polhill were returned without opposition. While the former was an unreserved supporter of the bill, Polhill’s stance was more equivocal. Long and Pulley, his sponsors, dismissed complaints from some Tories that he had ‘deserted his party’, professed themselves to be ‘moderate reformers’ and stated their objections to some details of the measure, notably its proposed increase in the number of Irish Members at the expense of English, and the £10 householder borough franchise, which they said would disfranchise many of the poorer voters of Bedford. Polhill, who expanded on the same themes, was condemned by Whitbread’s brother, Member for Middlesex, as an untrustworthy ‘insidious friend’ of reform.41 In the House, he generally supported the reform bills, but his voting behaviour in divisions on issues of confidence in the Grey ministry and other tests of party commitment showed where his true political allegiance lay. When moving unsuccessfully for the creation of a separate schedule of boroughs with a £5 householder franchise, 24 Aug., he elaborated on his claim that the £10 qualification would disfranchise many existing Bedford voters, and took the opportunity to boast of the borough’s recent liberation from Russell tyranny. The corporation adopted a petition to the Lords in support of the reform bill in late September 1831, but made no attempt to open it to the inhabitants at large.42

The struggle to break the corporation’s hegemony over the Harpur trust began in earnest in late 1830, though an independent Dissenter had won a surprising victory in an election for a vacancy in April 1829.43 (In addition to the ex officio trustees, 18 were elected by the ratepayers, with six going out by rotation each year.) All six corporation nominees were elected in November 1830. Dissatisfaction with the financial management of the trust and the distribution of its welfare payments led to a meeting of the inhabitants, 31 Dec. 1830, to consider appealing for a revised Act or to the lord chancellor. The latter course was adopted, and in June 1831 the petitioners’ case, alleging misappropriation of the revenues, including the payment of householders’ rates from money designated for the poor, and calling for trustees to be barred from holding offices and contracts or taking profits to themselves and for the publication of accounts, was heard. Lord chancellor Brougham ruled partly in their favour, recommending stricter interpretation of the Act of 1826, and warned the trustees as to their future conduct, but he advised their opponents against taking any ‘spiteful’ legal action over a particular appointment.44 The inhabitants’ committee continued their efforts, concentrating on trying to secure their own and their supporters’ election as trustees. They had a signal success at a by-election in August 1831, and at the annual election in November their six nominees swept the board. In April 1832 13 of the elected trustees petitioned chancery for new rules. The major battle for control of the trust took place in the period 1848-53.45 No meeting was called in Bedford during the crisis of May 1832, when Henry Hunt* ascribed the town’s ‘apathy to public interests’ to a variety of causes, including the absence of an inspiring leader since the death of Samuel Whitbread and the general ignorance of the mass of the inhabitants:

I even fear, that no dirty tergiversation of Captain Polhill will counterbalance the love of ale and gin among the mob - scot and lotters - and the love of having money spent in the shops of Bedford tradesmen, unless some fine fellow comes among us and makes the electors ashamed of their selfishness. I have spoken again and again to some friends respecting a public meeting, but, bitter local quarrels as to the trust of the Harpur Charity, and a hatred of the corporation, prevents even the Whigs, few as they are here, from joining in requisition for a public meeting.46

The enactment of reform was celebrated with a dinner at the Swan, 27 June 1832, when Polhill was conspicuously absent.47

Bedford was one of the score of English boroughs which retained their old boundaries. At the general election of 1832, when there were 1,572 registered electors, Whitbread easily topped the poll, but Polhill, standing as a Conservative, lost his seat by three votes to another Whig, who had support from Woburn Abbey. The two latter were reported to have spent about £28,000.48 Polhill was unsuccessful in his petition, but he had his revenge in 1835, when he defeated Whitbread, and in 1837 and 1841 he came in with a fellow Conservative.49

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 11; PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 25; (1835), xxvi. 2123.
  • 2. G.D. Gilmore, ‘Alderman Heaven’, Pubs. Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc. xlix (1970), 135-6; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 498; (1835), xxvi. 2105-12.
  • 3. PP (1835), xxvi. 2117, 2124-5. See C.F. Farrar, Harpur’s Bedford Charity and J. Godber, Harpur Trust.
  • 4. C.T. Flick, ‘Bedford Election of 1830’, Pubs. Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc. xlix (1970), 160-1; F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties, 275, 310, 355.
  • 5. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 4, 11 Mar.; Add. 51676, Russell to Holland, 13 Mar. 1820.
  • 6. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 15, 29 July 1820.
  • 7. Ibid. 18 Nov. 1820.
  • 8. Ibid. 6 Jan.; Northampton Mercury, 20 Jan. 1821.
  • 9. CJ, lxxvi. 5.
  • 10. Russell Letters, ii. 3.
  • 11. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 15 Feb., 1 Mar. 1823; CJ, lxxviii. 32-33.
  • 12. Russell Letters, i. 17.
  • 13. CJ, lxxix. 131, 436; lxxx. 343.
  • 14. Godber, 34-37; Farrer, 34-35; CJ, lxxxi. 48, 94, 100, 129, 238, 247, 346, 349-50, 378.
  • 15. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 17 June 1826.
  • 16. Herts Mercury, 19 Aug. 1826.
  • 17. Russell Letters, i. 46-47; ii. 59-60; Add. 51669, Bedford to Lady Holland, 1, 5, 21 Sept.; 51675, Tavistock to Holland, 1 Aug; 51676, Russell to Lady Holland, 20 Aug. [1826].
  • 18. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 7 Oct. 1826, 13 Jan. 1827; Russell Letters, i. 55, 97, 130-2.
  • 19. Russell Letters, i. 86.
  • 20. CJ, lxxxii. 350, 520, 527; lxxxiii. 105; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 9 June 1827, 23 Feb. 1828.
  • 21. Russell Letters, ii. 154, 178; Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 173, 184-5, 187.
  • 22. Add. 51663, Bedford to Holland, Tuesday [Mar.]; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 21, 28 Feb., 7 Mar.; Herts Mercury, 7, 14 Mar. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 148; LJ, lxi. 235.
  • 23. Blakiston, 194, 198; Russell Letters, i. 153-4.
  • 24. Russell Letters, i. 132-3; Blakiston, 202.
  • 25. Blakiston, 211-13; Russell Letters, ii. 254-5; Walpole, Russell, i. 155; Flick, 163-4.
  • 26. Add. 40487, f. 127; R.M. Muggeridge, Hist. of Late Contest for Bedford (1830), 3-12; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 3, 10 July; Herts Mercury, 3, 10, 17 July; Flick, 164; Blakiston, 214-15; Russell Letters, i. 141-2; ii. 311; Fitzwilliam mss, Tavistock to Milton, 5 July 1830.
  • 27. Flick, 165-6, 168; Muggeridge, 13-15, 17-18; The Times, 6, 13 Aug.; Fitzwilliam mss, Tavistock to Milton, 8 July [1830].
  • 28. Add. 51677, Russell to Holland, Mon. [26 July]; Muggeridge, 31-41; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 31 July, 7 Aug.; Herts Mercury, 24, 31 July, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 29. Russell Letters, ii. 261-2, 267; Muggeridge, 41-55, 63-75; Flick, 168; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 14 Aug.; Herts Mercury, 14, 21 Aug. 1830; Add. 51670, Bedford to Lady Holland, 12 Sept. [1830]. There are posters and handbills from the election in Beds. RO A.D. 1081.
  • 30. Add. 51680, Russell to Lady Holland [12 Aug. 1830]; Ellenborough Diary, ii. 339; Baring Jnls. i. 66.
  • 31. Bedford Pollbook (1830).
  • 32. Muggeridge, 76-92; Herts Mercury, 18 Sept.; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 2 Oct. 1830; Russell Letters, i. 149-50.
  • 33. Blakiston, 220-1; Russell Letters, i. 145-7, 152-5; ii. 256-7.
  • 34. Russell Letters, ii. 260-8.
  • 35. Ibid. i. 149, 158; Blakiston, 223.
  • 36. Herts Mercury, 9, 30 Oct. 1830; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 498.
  • 37. CJ, lxxxvi. 86, 132, 176, 222, 225, 237; LJ, lxiii. 131; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 25 Dec. 1830, 1 Jan. 1831.
  • 38. Russell Letters, ii. 311.
  • 39. Ibid. ii. 311, 321; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 25 Dec. 1830, 22, 29 Jan; Northampton Free Press, 25 Jan., 1 Feb.; Herts Mercury, 13 Feb. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 221.
  • 40. The Times, 9 Mar.; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 26 Mar. 2 Apr. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 416.
  • 41. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 30 Apr., 7 May 1831.
  • 42. Ibid. 1 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1036.
  • 43. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 18 Apr. 1829.
  • 44. Ibid. 6 Nov. 1830, 1, 15 Jan., 2, 9, 30 July 1831.
  • 45. Ibid. 6, 20 Aug., 17 Sept., 1 Oct., 5, 12, 26 Nov., 31 Dec. 1831, 6, 13 Jan., 11, 25 Feb., 14 Apr.1832; Godber, 42-44.
  • 46. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 19 May 1832; Russell Letters, iii. 13-14.
  • 47. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 23, 30 June 1832.
  • 48. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 25-26; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 67, 130; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 27 Oct., 15 Dec. 1832; Russell Letters, iii. 26; Russell Early Corresp. ii. 66; Add. 51671, Bedford to Lady Holland, Tuesday [13 Dec. 1832].
  • 49. Add. 40487, f. 127.