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

Background Information

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 3,000

Number of voters:

2,194 in June 1832


13 Apr. 1820CHARLES DUNDAS1084
 William Hallett132
30 Mar. 1825ROBERT PALMER vice Neville, called to the Upper House 
7 June 1832ROBERT PALMER vice Dundas, called to the Upper House1210
 William Hallett984

Main Article

Berkshire was notable for its lack of large landowners, aristocratic or otherwise, and its great and increasing number of ‘small proprietors, or yeomen, who cultivate their own farms, consisting of forty, fifty, or eighty acres’. Sir John Walsh* of Warfield wrote in 1833 that ‘these small properties are constantly changing hands’ and ‘the generality of our neighbours will be people of moderate fortunes, and domestic habits, who are attracted by its vicinity to London, the goodness of the roads, and the prettiness of the country’.1 The largest acreage belonged to the 1st earl of Craven, whose seat was at Ashdown Park, near Shrivenham, close to the Wiltshire border; but his first son was not born until 1809, and he did little to assert himself in county politics. In November 1819 he was appointed lord lieutenant on the retirement through ill health of the Tory 2nd earl of Radnor, who had Berkshire property near Faringdon, though his residence at Coleshill was almost in Wiltshire, where his main estates and electoral interests lay. His son Lord Folkestone, Member for Salisbury, was one of the most active of the radical Whigs, associated with Sir Francis Burdett* and William Cobbett†, and regularly spoke on the popular side at public meetings in Berkshire. The 5th earl of Abingdon, a Tory, who was seated at Wytham Abbey, near the Oxfordshire border in the northern extremity, had succeeded as a minor in 1799 and come of age in 1805. His first son was not born until 1808. The only other significant aristocratic presence in 1820 was that of the 2nd Baron Braybrooke, the brother-in-law of Lord Grenville and the 1st marquess of Buckingham, who owned estates around Billingbear, near Wokingham. His son and heir Richard Neville had been returned for the county as a Grenvillite Whig in 1812; but he had steadily diverged thereafter from the conservative political line of the Grenvillite leader, his cousin the 2nd marquess of Buckingham, by remaining loyal to the main body of opposition and supporting a modicum of parliamentary reform, though he was not a particularly assiduous attender. Nor was his colleague Charles Dundas, a veteran Scottish Whig who had acquired his property at Barton Court, near Newbury, by marriage, and been returned for the county in 1794. He was, however, adequately attentive to local interests, was personally popular, and well before 1820 was quite impregnable in his seat. Berkshire was of course overwhelmingly rural in occupation and outlook, but it was frequently traversed and harangued by Cobbett, who found sympathetic audiences. Reading, a rapidly expanding and prosperous commercial town, and the non-parliamentary boroughs of Hungerford, Maidenhead and Newbury, were centres of religious Dissent and political radicalism.2

Neither of the sitting Members attended the meeting, held in Reading, 15 Nov. 1819, to protest against the Peterloo massacre. It was promoted by Burdett, who owned estates in the Hungerford area, and 156 freeholders after the sheriff, John Sawyer of Heywood Lodge, had refused a requisition for an official county meeting. Burdett’s chief coadjutor was William Hallett, a friend of Cobbett and founder member of the Union Society, who lived at Denford, near Hungerford, and had unsuccessfully contested the county on a platform of purity of election and reform at the two previous general elections. In the course of his speech, he denounced the ‘roaring rampant royalists’, including Braybrooke and Sir Nathaniel Duckenfield of Sulham, who had surreptitiously got up a loyal declaration. Other speakers included Burdett, Charles Fyshe Palmer*, the advanced Whig Member for Reading, and his leading supporter Henry Marsh of Marsh Place.3 Dundas and Neville voted against the address, 24 Nov. 1819, but thereafter took virtually no part in the opposition to the Liverpool ministry’s repressive legislation. Both sought re-election in 1820, Dundas, now aged 68, slightly belatedly, having been visiting his estates in Flintshire when Parliament was dissolved. They were again challenged by Hallett, who reiterated the aim of his political life, namely ‘emancipation of my fellow citizens in general from boroughmonger corruption and the vindication of Berkshire independence in particular’. Once Dundas had declared his support for ‘practicable reform’, ruling out annual parliaments and universal suffrage, Hallett, in a series of rants, singled him out for attack on the grounds of his failure to oppose the post-Peterloo legislation, his persistent neglect of his parliamentary duties, which he sought to disguise by going to London occasionally to cast a conspicuous vote against government, and his dubious credentials as a genuine reformer. He also made much of Dundas’s unsuccessful attempt of 1816 to carry a bill to increase tonnage rates for goods carried on the Kennet and Avon canal, of which he had been the leading promoter. During these preliminaries Job Lousley of Blewbury, a prominent agricultural activist, portrayed Dundas as ‘a true friend to the occupiers of land’, but suggested that Neville had revealed by his evasiveness when pressed to support a county petition for enhanced protection the previous year that he was ‘no friend to our cause’.4 At a meeting held before the formal nomination, 8 Mar., the county voted congratulations and condolences to George IV. Both Dundas, who claimed that he had voted to limit the duration of the repressive measures, and Neville stressed their concern for the welfare of the agricultural interest, the latter seeking to explain his conduct over the petition of 1819. Hallett attacked Dundas over the canal episode and advocated a tax on real property and reform, though he disclaimed universal suffrage. In response, Dundas pointed to the commercial benefits which the canal had brought to the Newbury area. Hallett, who denied an allegation by the under-sheriff that he had not paid his share of the necessary expenses of the 1818 election, made it clear that he intended to go to a poll, and vainly proposed that it should be held at Abingdon, Newbury and Reading, rather than at the former alone.5 He kept it open for 12 days, in a display of shameless vexatiousness which bordered on the farcical: on the last eight days he mustered 25 votes, and none was cast for him on the twelfth. His final total was a derisory 132, which, he claimed, included 111 plumpers. In the course of these protracted proceedings, he issued addresses attacking Neville’s connection with the rapacious Grenvilles and rejoicing in the defeat of the Granville interest in Staffordshire. At the close he was unrepentant, asserting that he had done his best to uphold the right of free election in the face of a hostile coalition.6 On 9 June 1820 Thomas Frankland Lewis, Member for Beaumaris, presented a petition from several Berkshire freeholders complaining of Hallett’s vexatious conduct at the last three general elections and seeking action to prevent further abuses of the regulations governing the duration of polls. It was referred to a select committee, as was one from the Reading area, presented by Fyshe Palmer, 27 June, which, like another presented that day by Folkestone from freeholders of Hungerford and Newbury, prayed that future polls be held at Abingdon, Newbury and Reading on a rotating schedule of three consecutive days in each place. The committee’s report, 13 July 1820, observed that although, considering the general circumstances, the sheriff should have closed the poll, he had acted within the law in keeping it open. It recommended clarification of the governing statute and other measures to streamline electoral procedure, but conceded that it was too late for action to be taken that session.7

Petitions calling for relief from agricultural distress were presented to the Commons from several places in Berkshire, 16, 30 May 1820.8 The abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline was widely celebrated, but the sheriff, Timothy Earle of Swallowfield Place, refused to comply with the requisition promoted by Folkestone, and supported by Burdett, Hallett, Fyshe Palmer and his Reading colleague John Berkeley Monck, the Catholics Sir George Throckmorton of Buckland, Sir Henry Englefield of Whiteknights and Charles Eyston of East Hendred, Thomas Bowles of Milton Hill, Marsh and others, for a county meeting on the issue. Undeterred, Folkestone, Monck, Hallett, Palmer, Marsh and their associates, acting in their capacity as magistrates, called a meeting for 8 Jan. 1821 in Reading.9 Dundas was too unwell to attend, but signified his support for the objects of the meeting, while Neville simply kept his head down, though he subsequently voted for the opposition censure motion, 6 Feb. Folkestone, Burdett, Hallett, Marsh and Fyshe Palmer variously demanded restoration of the queen’s name to the liturgy, reform and the dismissal of ministers. Marsh made a particularly pointed attack, with a strong anti-clerical tone, on the authors of a Berkshire loyal address, which deplored ‘the unwearied activity of the turbulent and factious’. Dundas presented and endorsed the meeting’s petition, 26 Jan., along with similar ones from Newbury, Theale, Tilehurst and Wantage. Others were forthcoming from Hungerford, Newbury and Kintbury, 8, 13 Feb., while Craven presented the loyal address to the king on the 16th. Addresses to the queen from Speen and Hampstead Norris, and from the women of Hungerford, were laid before her in April.10 Berkshire petitions complaining of agricultural distress were presented to the Commons, 6 Mar.; and the clergy of the archdeaconry petitioned the Lords against Catholic relief (which both Members of course favoured), 13 Apr. 1821.11 Berkshire agriculturists petitioned the Commons for relief, 24, 29 Apr., 12 July, and the publicans of Wokingham petitioned against the beer retail bill, 15 July 1822.12 On 17 Oct. that year Cobbett went to Newbury ‘to dine with and harangue the farmers’, and took the opportunity to attack Dundas, whom he soon afterwards tried to provoke into a confrontation in the hunting field, for having publicly and falsely accused him of being connected with Thistlewood, the Cato Street conspirator. He addressed ‘a fine meeting’ of farmers in Reading, 9 Nov. 1822; but according to a correspondent of The Times, which attacked him as a ‘mountebank’, he was largely snubbed by them when he made another visit in January 1823, just after his defeat at the Herefordshire county meeting.13 At the December 1822 quarter sessions Folkestone, ‘in compliance with a request expressed to me in a letter from the chairman of the Yorkshire Parliamentary Reform Committee, and in conformity with my own opinion of the expediency of such a measure’, circulated a requisition for a county meeting to promote reform. His backers included Throckmorton, Burdett, Eyston, Fyshe Palmer, Monck, Bowles, Hallett and Marsh.14 Burdett was unable to attend the meeting, held in Abingdon, 27 Jan. 1823, because of illness, and Neville sent his excuses; but Dundas was present to declare his support for such reform as would, in the words of the petition concocted by Folkestone, who waived his personal radical preferences for the sake of unanimity, make the Commons the ‘real and efficient representative of the people’. Hallett advocated shorter parliaments, a taxpayer franchise, the ballot and the annual removal and replacement of a quarter of the Members. Marsh persuaded him to drop his later proposal that all future county meetings should be held in Abingdon rather than Reading, because of recent refusals to allow the town hall at the latter place to be used. The Reading Members were instructed to join their county colleagues in supporting the petition in the House. When it was presented by Dundas, 27 Feb. 1823, Neville, who voted twice for reform later that session, but seems to have been otherwise inactive for the remainder of his Commons career, expressed his support for its prayer, as did Monck and Fyshe Palmer.15 The clergy of the archdeaconry of Berkshire petitioned the Commons, 17 Apr., and the Lords, 9 May 1823, against concession of the Catholic claims; and there was some county activity to petition for the abolition of slavery in May and June.16 In 1824 Newbury publicans petitioned the Commons for repeal of the additional duties on excise licenses, 9 Mar., and against the beer duties bill, 17 May; and there were further petitions for the abolition of slavery and inquiry into the prosecution in Demerara of the Methodist missionary John Smith.17 Wokingham tradesmen petitioned both Houses in support of the bill to facilitate the recovery of small debts in March 1825.18

When the death of Braybrooke, 28 Feb. 1825, removed Neville to the Lords, the Berkshire Tories, headed by Sir John Lloyd Duckenfield, Bartholomew Wroughton of Woolley Park, Walsh, Morris Ximenes of Bear Place, William Mount of Wasing and George Henry Elliot of Binfield Park, got up a requisition to Robert Palmer of Holme Park, Sonning, near Reading. Palmer, who was just turned 32, enjoyed considerable landed wealth and had served as sheriff in 1818. He was descended from an old local family, who had been raised to gentry status by the estate purchases made by his grandfather, a London attorney, out of the profits of his work as agent to the dukes of Bedford. He accepted the invitation, promising independent conduct, but was challenged by Hallett, who offered on his usual terms of freedom of election, even though, so he asserted in his opening address, he was confined by illness to his current home at Watchfield, near Faringdon, and would be unable to canvass in person.19 At the nomination, 24 Mar., which was said to have excited little interest, Mount and Elliott, in proposing Palmer, portrayed him as a reliable guardian of the county’s electoral independence. A letter from Hallett was handed to the sheriff, Ebenezer Fuller Maitland* of Shinfield, who refused to divulge its contents beyond stating that he was ill at Southampton. (It was later revealed that it contained a mischievous suggestion that the sheriff should keep the poll open for two days at Abingdon, two at Reading, and two at Newbury, before returning to Abingdon to declare Hallett elected.) Palmer laid claim to complete ‘independence’ from party and reserved his right to exercise independent judgement on specific issues, but made clear his strong inclination to support the Liverpool ministry, whose recent successes in economic policy he praised. At the election formalities in Abingdon, 30 Mar., he was nominated by Wroughton and Thomas Duffield† of Marcham Park, while the still absent Hallett was proposed by William Crowdy, an attorney, of Westrop House, Highworth, and another member of his family. A third Crowdy was the only other person to show his hand for Hallett, but they insisted on having a poll. Preparations were in train when William Crowdy, to general relief, revoked the demand, as Hallett had apparently given him discretion to do, and Palmer was quietly returned. According to the reporter for The Times, ‘the business almost seemed to pass off as a matter of course’. Hallett subsequently indicated that he would stand again at the next opportunity.20 The recently established Tory newspaper, the Berkshire Chronicle, encouraged the promotion of petitions against any alteration of the corn laws, and a number were presented to the Commons by Palmer and Dundas in April 1825, while one from Newbury reached the Lords on the 28th. The Upper House was also petitioned by the archdeaconry against Catholic relief, which Palmer opposed in the Commons.21 Petitioning in 1826, when Dundas, but not Palmer, voted against the temporary opening of the ports to foreign corn, seems to have been confined to the issue of slavery.22

Both sitting Members offered again at the general election of 1826, though Dundas claimed that he had had to be talked out of retirement by his friends. Hallett admitted that he was too ill to stand, but he rehearsed his views on reform and the currency in a public address. Dundas, who did not bother to canvass, condemned free trade theories and asserted his support for adequate agricultural protection; but Palmer, who was forced to defend his recent vote for awarding the president of the board of trade a ministerial salary, took a much more ambiguous line, warning that ministers were certain to adjust the corn laws in the new Parliament and suggesting that they could not remain immune to the effects of the current government policy of commercial liberalization. At the same time, he said that he was willing to be informed and instructed by his farming constituents. He reaffirmed his hostility to Catholic relief. Both he and Dundas professed support for the abolition of slavery, with due regard to the good of all the interests involved.23 Cobbett noted in August 1826 that the farmers using Reading market were ‘in a devilish fright’ over falling incomes; and six months later Palmer was obliged to give a public explanation of his views on the corn laws, which, as expressed on the hustings, had created some disquiet. He denied having advocated their repeal or significant relaxation and promised to consider carefully all petitions on the subject. He duly presented (as did Dundas) a number calling for no alterations to be made, 27 Feb. 1827, along with one, promoted by Lousley among the agriculturists of north Berkshire, against the Weights and Measures Act. Petitions to the same effect were sent to the Lords that session.24 Both Dundas and Palmer, who in doing so acknowledged his constituents’ great alarm, voted against the corn bill, 2 Apr. The archdeaconry once more petitioned the Lords against Catholic claims, 19 Mar. 1827.25 They did so again, to both Lords and Commons, in 1828, when several petitions were sent up by Berkshire Dissenters for repeal of the Test Acts, for which both Members voted. The Catholics of East Hendred petitioned the Lords in favour of relief, 2 May, and agriculturists of the Vale did so for increased protection against foreign wool, 8 May.26 The county petitioned heavily against Catholic emancipation in 1829, though Hallett, in his capacity as a magistrate, petitioned the Commons in its favour, 19 Mar., but asked the Lords, 3 Apr., not to pass it until a measure of parliamentary reform had been enacted.27 Palmer, not without misgivings, joined Dundas in supporting the government scheme. Palmer’s vote for the amendment to the address calling for action to alleviate distress, 4 Feb. 1830, went down well with the users of Reading corn market; but at this time Sir John Phillimore told Walsh that Palmer was ‘not popular in the county’ and ‘strongly’ urged him to stand; he was not tempted.28 He and Dundas supported in the House the subsequent series of Berkshire agriculturists’ petitions for relief, specifically through repeal of the beer and malt taxes.29 Petitions were sent to both Houses from Maidenhead and Faringdon for abolition of the death penalty for forgery; and there were protests from publicans against the sale of beer bill later in the session.30

Dundas was in poor health during its second half, and as the death of the king loomed there was much speculation in the press over his likely retirement at the dissolution. Among those touted as potential candidates were the following Tories of various shades of opinion: Duffield, Wroughton, Thomas Goodlake the younger of Wadley, the 6th Lord Barrington† of Becket House, who had recently succeeded to the Shute estates near Shrivenham, and Philip Pusey of Pusey, near Faringdon, a young man of an intellectual bent who had recently been unseated as Member for Rye. However, Dundas had fully recovered by mid-June 1830, and made clear his intention of seeking re-election, which deterred all aspirants to his seat.31 At the county meeting to vote congratulations and condolences to William IV, 24 July, Radnor (as Folkestone had been since his father’s death in 1828) disturbed the customary unanimity to the extent of referring to the ‘severest distress’ in memory, though he did not press the matter as far as moving an amendment, which he had been informed by his friend Lord Stanhope would probably be ruled out of order. One Gilchrist, a Reading activist, spoke at length in support of an additional clause stating the extent of distress, but was prevailed on to drop it. Both Dundas and Palmer declared their sympathy for those suffering from privation and their willingness to promote measures of relief.32 Dundas, who had been angling for a peerage for three years, recruited an untried seconder in the person of the young Catholic Whig Robert George Throckmorton, nephew and heir presumptive of his uncle Sir Charles, head of the family since 1826; he may have been grooming Throckmorton as his eventual successor.33 At the election, when he spoke in favour of the abolition of slavery, fair protection for domestic corn growers, a reduction in public expenditure, and ‘gradual and wise’ reform, he repudiated some earlier anonymous written criticism of his performance as a Member, denying its charges of neglect and pleading his recent illness as the sole reason for his failure to support abolition and reform in the House. Palmer, who explained his support for Catholic emancipation, gave a very guarded statement of his support in principle for abolition, which he was subsequently obliged to clarify in a public letter, issued in response to complaints that he seemed to have been defending slavery. He declared himself to be ‘a moderate reformer’, ready to support the enfranchisement of large manufacturing towns at the expense of corrupt boroughs; complained that the current corn laws offered inadequate protection and gave an assurance that on this subject he would be ‘found a faithful expositor of their local sentiments’, and, under questioning, said that he favoured a reduction of taxation and inquiry into the civil list.34

There was some petitioning for the abolition of slavery in the first weeks of the new Parliament, but one was also got up by Berkshire West India proprietors praying for fair compensation in the event of abolition; Palmer presented it, 10 Feb. 1831.35 Both he and Dundas voted against the Wellington ministry on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. That day a labourers’ meeting for increased wages at Thatcham initiated an outburst of rioting, disorder, machine-breaking and arson which badly affected the county for over a week. Walsh was prominent in galvanizing the county magistrates into taking precautionary and punitive measures. The special commission which sat in Reading and Abingdon at the end of the year tried 162 cases, but meted out punishment with less ferocity than its predecessor in Hampshire.36 At a county reform meeting, 17 Jan. 1831, for which Charles Russell, the new Tory Member for Reading, thought the requisitionists were ‘few and scurvy’, Hallett, Eyston, Bowles and Radnor put forward a petition calling for ‘rational, practical and efficient reform’, so worded as to attract the widest possible support. Gilchrist produced an alternative, radical petition, with heavy emphasis on the ballot, but Marsh persuaded him to set it aside. Dundas had no difficulty in agreeing to present and support the original petition, while Palmer, though not entirely at ease, reiterated his support for ‘practical and rational reform’ and said that he would present it. When pressed to go further, he refused to pledge himself as to details in advance, but gave an assurance that he would support the petition ‘so far as its prayer was for practical, rational and effectual reform’. Monck, who had retired from his Reading seat at the dissolution the previous year, then proposed a scheme for a portion of the House, not exceeding 100 Members, to be elected by universal suffrage, but he withdrew it for lack of support. He had a more favourable response to his advocacy of the ballot, which Eyston and Palmer opposed, but Marsh, Gilchrist, Radnor and Fyshe Palmer supported. A compromise resolution, to the effect that ‘no reform could be practicable, rational, and efficient, without the vote by ballot’, was eventually carried by acclamation, but it was not incorporated in the petition. Responding to the criticism of William Budd of Burghclere, Hampshire, an associate of Cobbett, that he was at best a cautious reformer, Dundas discountenanced ‘radical’ reform and declined to commit himself on the ballot.37 Palmer presented the petition, 8 Feb., declaring his support for practical reform, expressing his hope that the Grey ministry would produce such a measure as he could accept, and confirming that a separate resolution in favour of the ballot had been carried. Dundas voiced his support for the petition. The corporation of Maidenhead petitioned for reform, 26 Feb., and the agriculturists of Berkshire for repeal of the malt tax, 2 Mar.38 Dundas pleaded illness as his excuse for not attending the county meeting to endorse the ministerial reform bill, 16 Mar., but signified his unreserved approval of it. Radnor, too, was unable to appear, being unavoidably detained in London. Eyston, presiding in his capacity as sheriff, read out a letter from Pusey (currently sitting for Chippenham), who had particularly requested him to do so, in which he argued that whatever the defects of the existing representative system, the bill was ‘too sweeping’, would annihilate the Tory party, leaving the king with ‘nothing but a Whig ministry and a republican opposition’, and ‘give a shock to the public respect for all our institutions’. An address to the king and a petition to the Commons expressing full support for the bill, proposed by Hallett, who spoke at inordinate length, and seconded by Monck, were unanimously adopted. On Monck’s motion that the petition be presented and supported by the county Members Palmer, who had not been afraid to show his face, confessed that the measure as it stood was ‘much too sweeping’ for him to support, but said that, standing by his earlier pronouncements in favour of practical reform, and in deference to the majority opinion of the county, he would not oppose its second reading, and would seek to have it modified in committee. While Hallett saw nothing objectionable in this statement of intent, Monck was severely critical of Palmer, whom he accused of wishing to preserve the rotten borough system.39 When Dundas presented the petition, 22 Mar., Palmer explained his personal position to the House, and he joined his colleague in voting for the second reading of the bill later that day. Although Berkshire petitioned emphatically in support of the measure,40 the local Tories attempted to rally behind a public declaration, composed and promoted by Pusey, who had designs on a county seat, in favour of moderate reform. It conceded the need to enfranchise unrepresented manufacturing towns, to reduce the cost of elections, and to eliminate bribery and corruption, but contended that reform should be introduced cautiously and gradually, and specifically objected to the proposed reduction in the number of English Members and £10 householder franchise. The leading signatories included Abingdon, Barrington, Lords Limerick, Rokeby and Stowell, who had residences at Bracknell, Clewer and Erleigh respectively, Walsh, Ximenes, Duffield, Mount, Duckenfield, John Pearse of Chilton Lodge, Member for Devizes, Sir Charles Saxton of Circourt, William Congreve of Aldermaston, William Seymour Blackstone† of Wallingford and Richard Benyon de Beauvoir† of Englefield House.41 Palmer voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the reform bill, 19 Apr. 1831, when Dundas was in the ministerial minority.

Both came forward at the ensuing general election, but the odds were stacked against Palmer from the start. The reformers, led by Radnor and Burdett, had decided to bid for both seats. Their first choice, Monck, declined Radnor’s invitation to stand, and recommended, as he had earlier, support for Robert George Throckmorton, who had the advantages of ‘family, property, a good name, and good principles’. Monck had already persuaded his friends in the Reading area to back him, so that ‘we may depend upon having a unity in our designs, and actions’. Throckmorton submitted to Radnor’s pressure and was poised to start, as an unequivocal supporter of the reform bill, when Parliament was dissolved.42 Support for him and Dundas, who of course took the same line, but did not trouble himself to canvass, was mobilized at meetings across the county. Palmer stuck to his moderate reform guns, but made it clear that a strong demonstration of hostility from the electorate would lead him to give up. Hallett also came forward in opposition to Palmer as ‘a ministerial reformer, as a firm friend to the throne, as an unflinching supporter of the rights of the people, and a strenuous advocate for the reduction of taxation’; but less than a week into the campaign he told Burdett that he would step aside for Throckmorton. In his parting address, he pledged himself to stand on the next vacancy or when the third seat proposed in the reform bill became available.43 Early in his hectic canvass, Throckmorton told his wife that he heard ‘not a word about Popery’, which ‘really seems quite forgotten’, and that there was ‘no sort of political feeling towards Palmer’, whom he did not expect to go to a poll. So it proved, for the tide of enthusiastic support for the measure proved irresistible. Walsh recorded that he ‘found all the abominable little independent fry of Bracknell, etc., quite wild about the bill, and having promised all their votes to Throckmorton’. A meeting of Palmer’s principal gentry backers decided to give it up, and at the nomination meeting in Reading, 4 May, his withdrawal was formally announced, to general delight. Walsh privately thought that ‘greater activity and determination might have carried him through, though it must have been a hard contest’. The following day he addressed the county, conceding that ‘the force of public opinion’ in favour of reform had given him no choice but to retire gracefully. At the meeting, when Throckmorton was nominated by Burdett and Monck, one Harris tried to get him and his colleague to make unequivocal declarations of support for the immediate abolition of slavery, but Burdett intervened to deplore the introduction of topics other than reform.44 The day before the election meeting in Abingdon, 9 May, Throckmorton’s wife wrote to her brother:

Tomorrow ... Robert is to be elected and chaired. We are to be there at ten ... I take him in the carriage as far as half way between this [Buckland] and Abingdon. There he will be met by an immense cavalcade of 4 or 500 and they will all proceed to the town with a procession of flags, bands of music, etc. ... We have been busy these three days making bows for all the people and carriages and horses. The colour (of reform) is very dark blue, which is very ugly ... If you could see the faces of the parsons - a Popish radical - the poor dear church.45

The formalities were largely uneventful, though Hallett passed comment on Palmer’s unmarried status and reflected that he had ‘been in bad company ... and had allowed himself to be influenced by the old Tories’. Palmer’s courage and honesty had earlier been acknowledged by several of the leading reformers. Immediately after his return Throckmorton used his ‘first franking day’ to inform his uncle Charles that ‘everything has gone off gloriously. We had a magnificent cavalcade into Abingdon and none of the opposite party showed their faces’. The triumph of reform was subsequently celebrated at local dinners.46 Dundas and Throckmorton shared the expenses: as the former observed when passing on a bill in February 1832, ‘there is no honour or glory obtained even in Berkshire without drawing your purse strings’.47

On 1 July 1831 the inhabitants of Newbury, Speenhamland and Greenham petitioned the Commons for restoration of their ‘ancient right’ to return a Member of Parliament; and the same day a Berkshire petition against the reform bill was presented. The agriculturists of east Berkshire petitioned the Lords for a commutation of tithes, 30 June.48 In July Lousley organized a meeting of farmers at Newbury to petition for the county franchise to be extended to occupiers without a seven year lease. Throckmorton presented and supported it, 20 July, and in the same spirit voted for the enfranchisement of tenant farmers, 18 Aug.49 He attended and addressed the county meeting to petition the Lords to pass the reform bill, 5 Oct., when Dundas absented himself on account of his wife’s illness and Hallett denied that the county had become ‘indifferent’ to reform. Radnor presented the petition, and others were forthcoming from Hungerford, Maidenhead and Newbury; but the Tories also petitioned for the measure to be substantially modified.50 After the rejection of the bill, meetings were held at Newbury and Maidenhead to address the king in its support, but the former was deemed by Russell and his brother, Henry Russell of Swallowfield, to have been a failure.51

Dundas was earmarked for a peerage, but ministers shied away from conferring it on him on the occasion of the coronation in September 1831, fearing that ‘the county would not be safe’. The prospect of a vacancy nevertheless encouraged Hallett, who was now 68 and in poor health, and Palmer to keep their pretensions before the electorate.52 In January 1832 Walsh recorded that Palmer, who ‘does himself harm by not telling his side with sufficient energy in times like these’, was ‘unwilling to incur the expense of a contest’ and was angling for a subscription. Walsh chaired a meeting of leading Tories, including Henry Russell, at Reading, 25 Jan.:

The real object ... was (on Palmer’s side) to set on foot something of a subscription to meet the expenses should they exceed a certain sum. But this failed, for the meeting was extremely shy of coming to any resolution of the kind, beyond general offers of zeal, and I found that it would be vain to press them. Indeed I am quite sure that Berkshire is ... a county of few large properties, but of a good many resident gentry of moderate fortunes, from whom large subscriptions cannot be expected.

Palmer, who was deliberately vague on his politics, ‘engaged to come forward and carry on a contest to a certain extent, while the meeting promised nothing but general support’. A ‘preparatory canvass’ was begun.53 He and Hallett offered when Dundas was given his peerage on the resignation of the Grey ministry in early May 1832. Palmer initially promised to support, as ‘necessary to afford satisfaction to the country’, a reform bill ‘embracing the principal features’ of the one thrown out by the Lords, namely the abolition of rotten boroughs, the ‘proportionate enfranchisement of important towns’ and an extension of the franchise. Hallett advocated ‘unsparing retrenchment and economy, and every safe and practicable reform of the various institutions of our country’.54 The reformers decided to rally behind him, and put pressure on Palmer to clarify his views on reform, and in particular to state whether he would support the bill ‘unimpaired in all its essentials’. This he declined to do, but, with the Grey ministry on the verge of reinstatement, he conceded that the bill was now certain to pass, and promised not to oppose it in the unlikely event of its coming again before the Commons. As well as trying to minimize the reform issue, and put himself forward as the dependable champion of the agricultural interest, Palmer and his supporters noticed Hallett’s age and current lack of a residence in the county. The reformers opened a national subscription for Hallett, and at the Mansion House dinner for Thomas Attwood† and the deputation from the Birmingham Political Union, 24 May, Burdett called on the friends of reform everywhere to support him, an ‘old and stanch reformer’, against Palmer, ‘a kind of Wellington reformer’, who was ‘by no means up to the mark’. Burdett himself subscribed £100, while a number of like-minded Members, including Ferguson, Hume, Morison, Warburton and John Wood, gave £50 each. A meeting of the Birmingham, Stroud and Manchester reform deputations in Covent Garden, 25 May, resolved to support and subsidize Hallett.55 On Palmer’s side, Walsh, one of his most active supporters, noted at an early stage that ‘the feeling about reform seems strong, but they [the electors] like Palmer’. A week later he recorded that Palmer was ‘disappointed in his canvass’ and finds ‘a tough opponent in Hallett’, a ‘poor old snivelling follower of Cobbett’: ‘Such are the times, and such is the nature of the experiment to be tried, viz., whether blackguards can govern this country as well as gentlemen have governed it’.56 Palmer stayed away from the county meeting to address the king and petition the Lords in support of the reform bill that day, 25 May, when even the reformers admitted that there was a poor attendance. Hallett was present to advance his cause, stating that although he still wanted the ballot, he was ‘perfectly satisfied’ with the measure as it stood. Gilchrist rejoiced in the ‘dying struggle’ of Tory peers and parsons, who would no longer be able to oppress and frustrate the people:

There were now new modes of communication between man and man, between county and county, between province and province, which would render their power irresistible, if they remained firm and peaceable, and true to one another.57

At the nomination meeting in Reading, 28 May, there was much heckling of Palmer and his proposers, who warned of the threat to agriculture of free trade theories being implemented by the reformed Parliament. Burdett and Monck, who put forward Hallett, dismissed this as scaremongering, and pointed out the additional weight which the measure gave to the agricultural interest. The show of hands was overwhelmingly in favour of Hallett, but Palmer of course demanded a poll. It was reported that although Hallett had a decided advantage over Palmer in the main towns, where ‘the great bulk of the lower order of the freeholders remain readily attached to the cause’, and the appeal for national financial assistance had had some success, he was still handicapped by lack of money, which would make it difficult for his supporters to get to Abingdon. The reformers seem to have been very poorly organized in general. There were allegations of improper clerical interference for Palmer, whose supporters also opened a subscription. The intervention of the political unions enabled Palmer and his backers to portray themselves as defenders of the independence of the county against outside interference and political dictation. The reformers insisted that unequivocal support for the bill was the only true test and reminded the electors that the Irish and Scottish measures had not yet passed the Commons. When nominating Hallett at the election meeting in Abingdon, 31 May, Bowles dismissed Palmer and his supporters as sham reformers and went on:

The Tories were now at their last gasp; and ... the extinction of a sordid, base and unprincipled oligarchy was on the eve of consummation - an extinction which he trusted would be the harbinger of a better era, of an era of good government, of economy, and of national prosperity.

The qualification and bribery oaths were put to all voters, though neither side would admit to having started this practice. Palmer, who denied a charge that he had received money from the Conservative ‘Charles Street gang’ in London, promised to support inquiry into an ‘equitable commutation’ of tithes, but deplored ‘spoliation’ and repeated his cautious line on the abolition of slavery, led from the start. There was sporadic disorder and violence. Features of the proceedings were lengthy speeches by Hallett and a number of rabid harangues by Marsh, who caused a great stir with the following ludicrous effusion:

Oh, glorious unions! Oh, excellent and enviable Attwood! When Tory Lords, and Tory squires, and Tory parsons shall be dead, rotten and forgotten, your memory shall be embalmed in the heart of every true patriot, and children yet unborn shall lisp your praise.

Hallett departed the scene at the close of the sixth day, and on the next his committee decided to give up, with Palmer leading by 226 in a poll of 2,194. They claimed that Palmer’s profession of support for the basic principles of the reform bill had won over many reformers, while others had remained neutral. A furious Marsh observed that the election had shown that

without union and organization, public opinion is a mere rope of sand ... I wish it to go forth to the world that no reaction has taken place in the county, but that we have lost the election for want of system and organization ... We have ushered our political child into the world without a rag to its back.

Palmer himself claimed that the essential issue had been not reform, but the question of ‘whether the gentry and yeomanry of this county should have the liberty to return a Member of Parliament of their own choosing, or whether they should submit to the dictation of the political unions’. It is clear that many of those who had deserted Palmer in 1831 because of his reservations about reform rallied to him once the measure was safe. In a comment on the affair, which attracted considerable national attention, The Times, denying that the outcome revealed a reaction against reform, stated:

The respectable and amiable character of Mr. Palmer having secured him from all enmity, and the notion being set afloat that Mr. Palmer had announced his conversion to reform, the feeling, in which alone the contest originated, that none but a friend to the bill should be elected, began to slacken, and was at last almost paralyzed by the growing confidence in the unobstructed passage of that bill into a law.

The Chronicle preferred to see the result as a victory for ‘the property, the real intelligence of the county ... aware, that on their success depended the future prosperity of the conservative principle’, over

the unwearied champions of change and innovation, the wild and insane theorists, the levellers and republicans, the spouters at radical meetings, the avowed enemies of the British farmer, the disloyal and hypocritical unionists, and the poor deluded dupes, who think that one vague and unmeaning term, is sufficient to cover all the deficiencies of its supporters.58

The Reform Act awarded Berkshire an additional seat and produced a registered electorate of 5,582 before the general election of 1832, when agricultural protection, tithes and slavery were the principal issues. Palmer easily topped the poll, Throckmorton came a respectable second and the Liberal John Walter of Bear Wood, proprietor of The Times, narrowly beat Pusey for the third seat.59 All three were in Conservative hands from 1837 to 1857.

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 270-1; Add. 28660, f. 59; NLW, Ormathwaite mss FG1/3, p. 264.
  • 2. Gash, 272, 300.
  • 3. The Times, 20 Oct., 16, 23 Nov. 1819.
  • 4. Reading Mercury, 7, 14, 21, 28 Feb., 6 Mar.; The Times, 8 Feb., 4 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Reading Mercury, 6, 13 Mar.; The Times, 9 Mar. 1820.
  • 6. The Times, 15, 17, 18, 20, 22, 25, 27, 29-31 Mar.; Reading Mercury, 20, 27 Mar., 3 Apr. 1820.
  • 7. CJ, lxxv. 323, 360, 449, 912; The Times, 20, 28 June 1820.
  • 8. CJ, lxxv. 216, 251-2.
  • 9. Reading Mercury, 20, 27 Nov., 18, 25 Dec.; The Times, 19 Dec. 1820; Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 97, 99.
  • 10. The Times, 9 Jan.; Reading Mercury, 15, 22, 29 Jan., 5, 12, 26 Feb., 23 Apr. 1821; CJ, lxxvi. 12, 51, 67.
  • 11. CJ, lxxvi. 143; LJ, liv. 343.
  • 12. CJ, lxxvii. 199, 213, 338, 426.
  • 13. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, i. 109, 113, 116-17; The Times, 20 Jan. 1823.
  • 14. Pryse mss (History of Parliament Aspinall transcripts), Folkestone to P. Pryse, 16 Dec. 1822, reply, 3 Jan.; Reading Mercury, 20 Jan. 1823.
  • 15. The Times, 28 Jan.; Reading Mercury, 3 Feb., 10 Mar. 1823; CJ, lxxviii. 76.
  • 16. CJ, lxxviii. 222, 285; LJ, lv. 673; Reading Mercury, 23 June 1823.
  • 17. CJ, lxxix. 136, 375; LJ, lvi. 84; Reading Mercury, 23 Feb., 15 Mar., 24 May 1824.
  • 18. CJ, lxxx. 140; LJ, lvii. 164.
  • 19. Berks. Chron. 5, 12, 19 Mar.; Reading Mercury, 7, 14, 21 Mar.; The Times, 25 Mar. 1825.
  • 20. The Times, 25, 31 Mar.; Berks. Chron. 26 Mar., 2, 9 Apr.; Reading Mercury, 28 Mar., 4 Apr. 1825.
  • 21. Berks. Chron. 9 Apr. 1825; CJ, lxxx. 337, 343, 350; LJ, lvii. 630, 658.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxi. 75; LJ, lviii. 40.
  • 23. Berks. Chron. 3, 10, 17, 24 June; Reading Mercury, 5, 12, 19, 26 June; The Times, 21 June 1826.
  • 24. Cobbett’s Rural Rides, i. 351; Reading Mercury, 29 Jan., 9 Apr.; Berks. Chron. 27 Jan., 10, 17, 24 Feb., 3 Mar. 1827; CJ, lxxxii. 239; LJ, lix. 97, 162.
  • 25. LJ, lix. 171.
  • 26. Reading Mercury, 31 Mar. 1828; CJ, lxxxiii. 83, 101, 268; LJ, lx. 51, 55, 72, 75, 76, 243, 307, 366.
  • 27. Berks. Chron. 7, 21 Feb.; Reading Mercury, 23 Mar. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 33, 85, 109, 127, 151, 165; LJ, lxi. 27, 28, 90, 120, 203, 339.
  • 28. Berks. Chron. 16 Feb. 1830; Ormathwaite mss FG1/5, p. 10.
  • 29. CJ, lxxxv. 67, 138, 172.
  • 30. Ibid. 261, 336, 402, 463; LJ, lxii. 176, 722, 751.
  • 31. Reading Mercury, 7, 14 June; Berks. Chron. 12, 19 June, 24 July 1830; Berks. RO, Pusey mss D/EBp C1/14.
  • 32. Reading Mercury, 26 July; Berks. Chron. 31 July; Cent. Kent. Stud. Stanhope mss U1590 C191/1, Stanhope to Winchilsea, 24 July 1830.
  • 33. Warws. RO, Throckmorton mss CR 1998/Tribune/folder 11/3.
  • 34. Berks. Chron. 7, 14 Aug.; The Times, 9 Aug.; Reading Mercury, 9, 16 Aug. 1830.
  • 35. Reading Mercury, 15 Nov.; Berks. Chron. 20 Nov., 18 Dec. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 60, 61, 117, 147, 230.
  • 36. Reading Mercury, 15, 22, 29 Nov., 6, 13, 20, 27 Dec.; Berks. Chron. 20, 27 Nov., 4, 11, 18, 25 Dec. 1830; E. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé, Captain Swing (1985), 104-10, 221-2; Ormathwaite mss FG1/5, pp. 135-7, 149-50.
  • 37. Bodl. MS. Eng. lett. d. 153, f. 1; Reading Mercury, 3, 24, 31 Jan. 1831.
  • 38. CJ, lxxxvi. 309, 334.
  • 39. The Times, 17 Mar. 1831; CUL, Acton mss, Add. 8121 (4)/316.
  • 40. Reading Mercury, 21, 28 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 389, 419.
  • 41. The Times, 9 Apr.; Berks. Chron. 9 Apr.; Reading Mercury, 11, 18 Apr.; Pusey mss O2/3/6,8; Add. 28671, f. 221; Gash, 301; Hants RO, Carnarvon mss 75M91/E43/111, Page to Carnarvon, 24 Apr.; L3, H. Howard to Lady Porchester, 4 May 1831.
  • 42. Throckmorton mss folder 10/1, 9; Berks. Chron. 23 Apr.; Reading Mercury, 25 Apr. 1831.
  • 43. Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 24 Apr.; Reading Mercury, 2 May 1831; Throckmorton mss folder 16/34.
  • 44. Reading Mercury, 2, 9 May; Throckmorton mss folder 10/8; 16/25-34; Ormathwaite mss FG1/5, pp. 180-1; Gash, 273-4, 301-3.
  • 45. Acton mss 8121 (4)/317.
  • 46. Reading Mercury, 16, 30 May, 6 June 1831; Throckmorton mss folder 5.
  • 47. Throckmorton mss folder 11/6.
  • 48. CJ, lxxxvi. 600; LJ, lxiii. 773.
  • 49. Berks. Chron. 9 July; Reading Mercury, 5 Sept. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 678.
  • 50. Reading Mercury, 3, 10 Oct.; The Times, 6 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1033, 1055, 1067, 1071.
  • 51. Reading Mercury, 17, 24 Oct. 1831; Bodl. MS. Eng. lett. d. 153, ff. 213, 215.
  • 52. Holland House Diaries, 47; Reading Mercury, 10, 17, 24, 31 Oct., 7 Nov. 1831; Bodl. MS. Eng. lett. d. 153, f. 174.
  • 53. Bodl. MS. Eng. lett. d. 154, f. 70; Ormathwaite mss FG1/6, pp. 5-6, 9-10.
  • 54. Berks. Chron. 12, 19 May; Reading Mercury, 14 May 1832.
  • 55. Reading Mercury, 21 May; The Times, 23-25 May; Berks. Chron. 26 May 1832.
  • 56. Ormathwaite mss FG1/6, pp. 79-80, 83.
  • 57. The Times, 26 May; Reading Mercury, 28 May 1832.
  • 58. The Times, 29 May-2 June, 4-9 June; Reading Mercury, 4, 11 June; Berks. Chron. 2, 9 June 1832; Ormathwaite mss FG1/6, p. 87. See Gash, 303-4, where the occurrence of this contest is overlooked.
  • 59. Ormathwaite mss FG1/6, pp. 92, 95; G42, ff. 81-104, 131-2; The Times, 10, 15, 16, 22 Oct., 6, 20, 26 Nov., 10, 19-21, 29 Dec. 1832; Gash, 304-7.