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 corporation

Number qualified to vote:



37,277 (1821); 53,287 (1831)


16 Mar. 1820GEORGE HAMILTON CHICHESTER, earl of Belfast
15 June 1826GEORGE HAMILTON CHICHESTER, earl of Belfast

Main Article

Belfast, ‘a sort of metropolis of the north’, as Anne Plumptre observed, was already in the early nineteenth century a byword for economic prosperity and genteel, overwhelmingly Protestant, society.1 Its opulence derived from its rapidly expanding linen manufactures, but it also benefited from the production of cotton, yarn, butter, glass and shipbuilding, and it was a busy and profitable seaport.2 The mercantile interests were well represented by the Chamber of Commerce which, under the energetic leadership of the linen factor John Stevenson Ferguson, often petitioned Parliament on commercial matters and in favour of local legislation, such as the Lagan Bridge and Belfast Harbour Acts of 1831. Described by John Gibson Lockhart in 1825 as ‘a thriving, bustling place surrounded with smart villas, and built very much like a second-rate English town’, Belfast boasted several social and charitable societies, notably the Academical Institution.3 Almost all the properties in the borough, which was coextensive with the parish, were owned by the 2nd marquess of Donegall of nearby Ormeau, the ‘lord paramount’ and parliamentary patron.4 As hereditary lord of the Castle, he was an ex-officio member of the corporation, which consisted of a sovereign (who acted as returning officer) and 12 other burgesses. Although there were a handful of freemen, the inhabitants had long been excluded from any role in the ruling body, which grossly mismanaged the town’s concerns.5 Donegall’s influence was exercised by a small number of trusted friends and relatives, for whom he procured situations under government and places on the corporation, and one or other of them usually presided decorously over the town’s many public meetings. Foremost among these were his brothers-in-law Thomas Verner, collector of excise, sovereign from 1819 to 1823, and the former Member Sir Stephen May, collector of customs, sovereign from 1828 to 1834.6

There was, however, a growing divide between the proprietor and his allies, natural supporters of Lord Liverpool’s Tory ministry, on the one hand, and an increasingly vocal and assertive middle class and reformist opposition on the other.7 According to James Emerson Tennent† of the Lodge, son of the merchant William Emerson and son-in-law of the banker William Tennent, writing in 1832:

The borough being from the reign of James [I] in the hands of Lord Donegall, the people, having no vote in the town, took no part in its politics ... Still there were a few who notwithstanding this general feeling, took advantage of the general quiescence of others to enhance their own activity, and these forming themselves by a conventional tie into one phalanx ... on every occasion which called for a manifestation of the voice of the town ... were at their post and gave the tone to the whole occasion. Thus with total supineness on the one side and extreme activity on the other the natural leaders of the town became all in all in its affairs ... I must tell you likewise that the movement party were the Whigs and the quietists the Tories. The former consists of about three clever men and nine smart, intelligent, but not to say talented fellows, together with about 100 comfortable merchants and perhaps one-third of the rest of the population. The Tories on the contrary are the most numerous (I should say neutral, quiet, thoroughgoing people); they are all the landed proprietors to a man, the Donegall family at the head, all the monied men and bankers and all the respectable shopkeepers. The Whigs are the Unitarians and Catholics, the Tories the Old Light Presbyterians and the Church.8

The separation between these two forces was represented by the Belfast newspapers: to the left of the largely independent News Letter stood the radical Irishman, edited by John Lawless, and the Northern Whig of James Simms, while ranged on the right were the staid Commercial Chronicle and the Tory Guardian.

Since the Union, except for two years between 1816 and 1818, Donegall had returned a family member for Belfast. At the general election of 1820, when his relation Arthur Chichester of Greencastle, county Donegal, transferred to Carrickfergus, he brought in his eldest son Lord Belfast, who had withdrawn from the Antrim contest. Lord Belfast, like his brothers Lord Edward and Lord Arthur Chichester†, had recently been made a burgess of the corporation.9 After Verner had refused a requisition, the salt refiner James Munford, an active reformer, chaired a meeting which agreed an address to Queen Caroline, 19 Aug., and, despite Verner’s attempts to suppress it, a popular illumination took place after her acquittal in November. The corporation approved a loyal address to George IV, 30 Dec. 1820, but the radicals again held an unauthorized gathering, 30 Jan. 1821, at which they addressed the king to dismiss his ministers.10 After another meeting had been refused, a petition in favour of parliamentary reform was presented to the Commons, 16 Apr. 1821, by John Lambton, who ridiculed the unrepresentative nature of the borough.11 The following year there was continued agitation for action to relieve economic distress, and on 15 May 1822 a meeting agreed to raise a subscription to assist poor tenants in the south of Ireland.12 In an encounter with Lord Belfast in the autumn, Lawless unfairly accused him of suppressing a petition, whereas in fact he and Chichester usually did their best to bring their constituents’ interests before Parliament. The settlement of the family’s legal problems at this time enabled Lord Belfast and his father, for whom a dinner was held in Belfast, 30 Aug. 1822,13 to alienate land in order to clear at least £217,000 of debts. However, the granting of a large number of (usually low rent) leases in perpetuity on the payment of a cash charge, provided a short-term advantage to their finances at the expense of the estate’s long-term political influence.14

In the face of objections from another activist, John Barnett, a tanner, a town meeting in December 1822 agreed an address congratulating the lord lieutenant on his lucky escape during the Dublin theatre riot that month.15 Apparently for the first time since 1782, the friends of parliamentary reform held dinners in Belfast, 7 Apr., 20 Nov. 1823, one of which was addressed by Edward Ruthven, former Member for Downpatrick.16 Anti-slavery petitions were brought up in the Commons, 15 May 1823, 31 May 1824, 19 May 1826, and the Lords, 26 May 1826.17 The freemasons’ petition for exemption from the Secret Societies Act was presented to the Commons (by O’Neill, the county Member), 31 Mar., and the Lords, 8 Apr. 1824.18 A pro-Catholic petition with nearly 500 signatures was brought up in the Commons by Sir John Newport, 1 Mar., and in the Lords by Lord Downshire, 17 May, but a hostile one with over 1,600 names was presented by Chichester, 25 Mar. 1825.19 Petitions from the landholders, agriculturists and corn dealers against alteration of the corn laws were presented to the Commons by Chichester, 28 Apr. 1825, and the Lords by Lord Ellenborough, 23 May 1826.20 On Lawless closing the Irishman in order to move to Dublin, Barnett and others organized a public dinner in his honour, 17 Apr.21 Lord Belfast was returned unopposed at the general election that summer, when one paper commented sarcastically that ‘this septennial task was deemed so troublesome and uninteresting by the "privileged few" that only two electors could be mustered’ out of the eight burgesses.22 Barnett expounded the views of the reformers, who included republicans, repealers and emancipationists, 7 Sept. 1826, when he spoke at length at the Belfast dinner for Charles Brownlow, the now pro-Catholic Member for county Armagh.23

Lord Belfast presented petitions from the inhabitants for assisted emigration to North America, 13 Feb. 1827, 28 Mar. 1828, and against the practice of suttee, 23 May 1827.24 A pro-Catholic petition, which was said to have barely 100 signatures, was brought up in both Houses, 5 Mar., and, although an attempt was made to remove the reference to their hopes for Catholic relief, the inhabitants approved an address to the king congratulating him on the change of ministry, 12 May 1827.25 However, there were 5,000 signatures attached to the anti-Catholic petition which Lord Belfast presented, 16 May 1828, and in addition to the Ulster Brunswick Club, at least two anti-Catholic associations were established in Belfast that autumn.26 Peel, the home secretary, brought up the pro-Catholic petition from the bankers, merchants and traders of the town, 16 Mar., and the following day his statement that the inhabitants were predominantly in favour of emancipation was rebutted by Lord Belfast, who presented their hostile petition on the 30th. These petitions were brought up in the Lords, 19 Mar. (by Downshire), 7 Apr. (by Lord Eldon).27 The supporters of the Catholics celebrated the passage of the emancipation bill at a dinner on 28 Apr., and at another in May’s honour, 23 Oct. 1829, Donegall, who agreed that Lord Belfast should reside more often in the town, attempted to smooth over past differences of opinion on the religious question.28 Meetings of the inhabitants and merchants of Belfast led to their petitions being presented against the Irish Subletting Act, 10 Mar., renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 18 Mar., and increased Irish stamp duties, 10, 13, 17 May; these were brought up in the Lords, 15 Mar., 11 May, 1 July 1830.29

At the general election of 1830 Lord Belfast was returned with O’Neill for Antrim after a contest in which the Belfast freeholders, of whom there were about 200, played an important part, a fact acknowledged by both Members at election dinners there.30 Instead Donegall brought in Chichester, who had been defeated at Carrickfergus, for Belfast, where despite May’s obstruction, the reformers met on 31 Aug. to agree a congratulatory address to the French chamber of deputies on their revolution.31 Following a meeting, 14 Sept., anti-slavery petitions were presented to the Commons, 19 Nov. 1830, 7, 9, 28 Mar., and the Lords, 15, 20, 21 Apr. 1831, but others from the West India merchants opposing any infringement of their property rights were brought up in both Houses, 15, 22 Dec. 1830.32 A declaration against repeal of the Union, signed by Donegall, May, Chichester and others, was agreed, 5 Nov., but the most important gathering that winter was the large reform meeting on 2 Dec. 1830. The radicals, including Tennent, the banker Edmund Getty, the linen merchant Robert Grimshaw and the Secessionist minister the Rev. Henry Montgomery, were out in force and the resulting petition called for extensive measures, including triennial parliaments and the ballot. Although Donegall, Lord Belfast and O’Neill initially replied that they could not go so far in supporting parliamentary reform, Lord Belfast retained his household position under Lord Grey’s administration and the family therefore gave their reluctant support to the reform bill.33

Ministers clearly had in mind an alteration of the Belfast franchise, as Lord John Russell had mentioned the borough as worthy of increased representation in his reform speech on 28 May, and Thomas Spring Rice*, secretary to the treasury, suggested to Lord Lansdowne, 30 Dec., that ‘Belfast, with its wealthy and intelligent population, ought not to be left in a state worse than unrepresented’.34 There was a reform dinner in Belfast, 31 Dec. 1830, and after the committee had issued a reform declaration, 19 Jan., the Belfast Reform Club was established on 25 Jan. 1831.35 According to one observer, this club was of an ‘almost extraordinary nature’ since ‘anyone being introduced and paying a shilling becomes a member’.36 Following a requisition, May chaired a meeting of the inhabitants, 16 Mar., when an address to the king and petitions for reform were got up, but amendments for more radical agitation were rejected. The December and February reform petitions were respectively presented to the Lords, 25 Feb. (by Grey), 18 Mar., and the Commons, 26 Feb. (by Brownlow), 18 Mar. (by Chichester), when they received the support of the county Members.37 At another meeting, 30 Apr., the reformers forwarded to Grey an address thanking the king for dissolving Parliament on the reform issue.38 Chichester was, of course, returned at the general election as a reformer, but already one local inhabitant, William Bristowe, had addressed the potential £10 electors. Belfast saw extensive canvassing for the expected county contest and steps were being taken to ensure that future contenders for the representation of both Antrim and Belfast were chosen by the populace in an informal ballot, in order to preclude Donegall from nominating his own plausible candidates.39 At the dinner in his honour, 20 May 1831, Rice praised the reformers for their support of administration, and among those toasted was William Sharman Crawford† of Crawfordsburn, Down, who had unsuccessfully contested his own county.40

A petition opposing repeal of the Union was presented to the Lords by Lord King, 14 July, and the Commons by Brownlow, 20 July 1831, when doubts were expressed about how accurately this reflected the real state of opinion on the subject.41 Various Belfast petitions for continuance of the grant to the Kildare Place Society were brought up, 15, 27 July, 14 Sept., and one for disbandment of the Irish yeomanry was presented by Daniel O’Connell, 26 Sept.42 At a town meeting in September a concerted effort was made by a group of anti-reformers to promote a hostile petition, but the original favourable petition to the Lords was eventually agreed. This was presented by Brougham, the lord chancellor, 3 Oct., but an anti-reform one was brought up by Lord Londonderry, 6 Oct., when he claimed that the bulk of the inhabitants opposed the bill. In the furore that followed its defeat, May and others wrote to Brougham to ask him to correct the impression that there had been a reaction against reform in Belfast, 10 Oct., and an address to the king calling on him to retain the present ministers was forwarded to Donegall, 15 Oct. 1831.43

Using the premises of the Northern Whig, the Belfast Reform Society met on 18 Jan. 1832 to pass a petition calling for as extensive a measure of reform in Ireland as was intended for England; it was brought up in the Commons by Lord Belfast, 24 Mar., and the Lords by Lord Gosford, 17 Apr.44 The Reform Society continued to meet frequently, and among its petitions were those for the abolition of tithes (presented to the Lords, 16 Mar., and the Commons by Ruthven) and the ministerial plan for national education (presented to the Lords by Grey, 14 May, and the Commons by Thomas Wyse, 5 July).45 An extraordinary meeting chaired by Tennent, at which Sharman Crawford was greeted as the future Member for the borough, 15 May, approved an address to William IV in favour of his reinstating the Grey ministry, and a petition calling for supplies to be withheld until the reform bill had passed was brought up in the Commons, 1 June. But the anti-reformers forwarded a hostile address to Londonderry for presentation to the king, and the bad feeling engendered by the reform crisis spilled over into violence, during which one man lost his life.46 Barnett led a delegation to Grey to congratulate him on his return to office, and in early July there were celebrations to mark the passage of the bill.47 That month Lord Templemore complained of the continued exclusion of the suburb of Ballymacarrett, which he owned, from the parliamentary borough. Belfast, which received a second Member under the Irish Reform Act, had about 8,000 houses, of which 3,160 were valued at £10, but it was expected that the number of electors would be about 2,300. In fact, only 1,659 had been registered by December 1832.48

Although an overconfident Liberal party had two candidates prepared in Sharman Crawford and Robert James Tennent† (Emerson Tennent’s brother), their cause received a setback at the general election of 1832, when Lord Arthur Chichester, who followed the family line back towards the Conservatives, and Emerson Tennent, who to his lasting regret abandoned his Whig friends and agreed to stand as a Conservative, were elected after a severe contest, which marked the start of party and sectarian politics in the town.49 The incompetent corporation, many of whose functions had been taken over by other commissions, was condemned in the municipal corporations report in 1835 and abolished in 1840. The combination of parliamentary and municipal reform, together with the deterioration of the estate, led to the collapse of the Donegall interest, and after Lord Arthur, who sat until 1834, the only other Chichester to represent Belfast was his brother Lord John Ludford, from 1845 to 1852. With the enforced sale of the Belfast property in 1850, the family’s influence in elections, which came to be dominated by the Conservatives, finally ceased to exist.50

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Strangers to that Land ed. A. Hadfield and J. McVeagh, 225-7; Hist. Irish Parl. ii. 168, 169.
  • 2. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1820), 133-5; PP (1831-2), xliii. 13; (1835), xxviii. 289; S. Lewis, Top. Dict. of Ireland (1837), i. 191, 193-6.
  • 3. Stranger in Ireland ed. C. Maxwell, 251; Lewis, i. 198-200.
  • 4. Oldfield, Key (1820), 323; Key to Both Houses (1832), 299.
  • 5. PP (1824), iii. 672; (1825), xxii. 249; (1831-2), xliii. 13; (1835), xxviii. 254, 256, 257; I. Budge and C. O’Leary, Belfast: Approach to Crisis, 7, 14, 15.
  • 6. R.M. Young, Town Bk. of Corporation of Belfast (1892), 335.
  • 7. See H.D. Inglis, Ireland in 1834, ii. 264.
  • 8. PRO NI, Emerson Tennent mss D2922/B/14B/11.
  • 9. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 624, 625; Belfast News Letter, 15 Feb., 17 Mar. 1820.
  • 10. Belfast News Letter, 18, 22 Aug., 17, 21, 28 Nov. 1820, 5, 19, 30 Jan., 2 Feb. 1821.
  • 11. CJ, lxxvi. 269; The Times, 17 Apr. 1821.
  • 12. Belfast News Letter, 19, 23 Apr., 17, 28 May 1822.
  • 13. Ibid. 30 Aug.; The Times, 4, 5, 17 Sept. 1822.
  • 14. W.A. Maguire, Living like a Lord: 2nd Mq. of Donegall, 75-86; W.A. Maguire, ‘1822 Settlement of Donegall Estates’, Irish Econ. and Social Hist. iii (1976), 17-32.
  • 15. Belfast News Letter, 24, 27 Dec. 1822, 7 Feb. 1823.
  • 16. Ibid. 11 Apr., 25 Nov. 1823; R.B. McDowell, Public Opinion and Government Policy in Ireland, 56.
  • 17. CJ, lxxvii. 312; lxxix. 436; lxxxi. 372; LJ, lviii. 387.
  • 18. CJ, lxxix. 234; LJ, lvi. 153; The Times, 1 Apr. 1824.
  • 19. CJ, lxxx. 140, 265; LJ, lvii. 835; Belfast News Letter, 1 Mar.; The Times, 2, 26 Mar., 18 May 1825.
  • 20. CJ, lxxx. 350; LJ, lviii. 364; The Times, 29 Apr. 1825, 24 May 1826.
  • 21. Belfast Commercial Chron. 22 Mar., 10, 19 Apr. 1826; D.J. Owen, Hist. Belfast, 198-204.
  • 22. Belfast Commercial Chron. 17 June 1826.
  • 23. Ibid. 9 Sept. 1826; PRO NI, Hill mss D642/208.
  • 24. CJ, lxxxii. 159, 486; lxxxiii. 210; The Times, 14 Feb., 24 May 1827.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxii. 276; LJ, lix. 128; Belfast News Letter, 16 Feb., 11, 15 May 1827.
  • 26. CJ, lxxxiii. 356; Belfast Guardian, 3 June, 12 Sept.; Belfast News Letter, 10 Oct., 11 Nov. 1828.
  • 27. CJ, lxxxiv. 141, 182; LJ, lxi. 228, 366.
  • 28. Belfast News Letter, 29 Apr., 27 Oct. 1829.
  • 29. Ibid. 16, 19 Feb., 23, 20 Apr. 1830; CJ, lxxxv. 159, 193, 394, 415, 431; LJ, lxii. 118, 366, 789.
  • 30. PP (1831-2), xliii. 14, 16; Belfast News Letter, 17 Aug., 17 Sept., 15 Oct. 1830.
  • 31. Belfast News Letter, 31 Aug., 3 Sept., 12 Oct. 1830.
  • 32. Ibid. 14, 17 Sept. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 117, 176, 347, 355, 445; LJ, lxiii. 192, 429, 485, 504.
  • 33. Belfast News Letter, 30 Nov., 3, 7, 24 Dec. 1830; Emerson Tennent mss B/14B/3; C/1/1; Budge and O’Leary, 26, 41, 42.
  • 34. Lansdowne mss.
  • 35. Belfast News Letter, 4, 7, 21, 28 Jan. 1831.
  • 36. PRO NI, Dufferin mss D1071/B/C/20/1/49a.
  • 37. Belfast News Letter, 8, 11, 25 Mar. 1831; Emerson Tennent mss C/1/3; CJ, lxxxvi. 310, 402; LJ, lxiii. 253, 338.
  • 38. Belfast News Letter, 29 Apr., 3, 6, 20 May 1831.
  • 39. Ibid. 22 Mar., 31 May 1831; Emerson Tennent mss B/14B/6, 7.
  • 40. Belfast News Letter, 17, 24 May 1831.
  • 41. CJ, lxxxvi. 678; LJ, lxiii. 819; Belfast Guardian, 26 July 1831.
  • 42. CJ, lxxxvi. 659, 703, 840, 866.
  • 43. LJ, lxiii. 1039, 1069; Belfast News Letter, 23, 27 Sept., 7, 11, 14, 18 Oct., 1 Nov.; Belfast Guardian, 27, 30 Sept., 4, 7, 18 Oct. 1831; Wellington mss WP1/1198/38.
  • 44. Northern Whig, 5, 9, 19, 26 Jan., 9 Feb. 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 220; LJ, lxiv. 176.
  • 45. Northern Whig, 23, 27 Feb., 8, 15 Mar. 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 235, 461; LJ, lxiv. 101, 204.
  • 46. Belfast News Letter, 15, 18, 22, 25, 29 May, 8 June; Belfast Guardian, 15, 18, 22, 25 May 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 364.
  • 47. Northern Whig, 11 June, 2 July 1832.
  • 48. Derby mss 920 Der (14) 69/1, Templemore to Smith Stanley, 23 July 1832; PP (1831-2), xliii. 13, 14, 16; PRO NI D2472/1.
  • 49. Belfast News Letter, 7, 14 Sept., 18, 21, 25, 28 Dec. 1832; Emerson Tennent mss A/1/1; B/14B/6; C/2/1; McDowell, 134, 135; K.T. Hoppen, Ireland Since 1800, 75; Budge and O’Leary, 42-44.
  • 50. PP (1835), xxviii. 257, 289; Budge and O’Leary, 15, 44-53; C. O’Leary, ‘Belfast Urban Government in Age of Reform’, in D. Harkness and M. O’Dowd, Town in Ireland, 187-202; Owen, 257-61; G. Benn, Hist. Belfast (1880), ii. 140-1; Maguire, Living like a Lord, 84, 91, 92, 97; Maguire, ‘Lord Donegall and Sale of Belfast’, EcHR (ser. 2), xxix (1976), 570-84.