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:



2,902 (1821); 3,375 (1831)2



Main Article

Bodmin, a market town situated ‘along the bottom and some way up the sides of a deep valley’, almost in the centre of the county, consisted ‘principally of one street, running from east to west ... nearly a mile in length’. It was the trading centre for ‘an extensive agricultural district’, which included ‘exceedingly good grazing land’, and was for many purposes the county town. However, in 1824 there were said to be ‘many marks of desolation’ in ‘the western districts’, and the streets in the centre were ‘dangerously narrow’. The ‘once considerable’ manufacture of bone lace had entirely disappeared, and though some ‘common serge’ was still produced and a trade in wool carried on, these were not important enough to have ‘any material influence upon the population’.3

The borough encompassed the town and much of the ‘rural part of the parish’. The franchise was confined to members of the corporation, which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, 11 other aldermen and 24 capital burgesses, who were removable but usually held their offices for life. It was a purely self-electing body, aldermanic vacancies being filled from among the capital burgesses and new capital burgesses being selected from the rated inhabitants. Theoretically, there was also an indefinite number of freemen, but none had been created for many years. The corporators were mostly gentlemen, clergymen and other professionals, with a few tradesmen among the capital burgesses; many were related, and in 1834 three families supplied ten of their number. Francis Basset, 1st Baron De Dunstanville of Tehidy Park, the recorder, was the Tory patron and recommended both the Members. It was noted in 1820 that his relationship with the corporators was rather that of ‘their agent than their master’, and that he had ‘no other hold over them than good offices and good will’, as they ‘jealously elect their own fellow-corporators, who must be residents, so that the patron can never get his own private friends into the corporation’. De Dunstanville procured patronage for corporators and their relatives, including postmasterships, church livings and positions in the excise, and he was obliged to spend ‘about £500 per annum on public purposes connected with the town’. In addition, he had taken over the corporation’s debts, which amounted to £3,000, covered the annual deficit in its expenditure, made loans to individual corporators and gave ‘small annuities, about £30’, to a few who were in distress. The municipal corporations commissioners concluded in 1834 that there was little to distinguish Bodmin from ‘other boroughs which have been mainly sustained for the purpose of political corruption, except that the town has been better governed’. There were recurring problems caused by divisions within the corporation, which arose from a mixture of personal and political motives, and on certain occasions those ‘attached to one party ... declined attending ... meetings with the view of embarrassing the adverse party’ and necessitated ‘an application for a mandamus’. De Dunstanville was also tiring of the financial burden of his position and the importunity of the corporators, and was looking for someone to take his place.4 At the general election of 1820 his nominees John Wilson Croker, the secretary to the admiralty, and Davies Gilbert of Tredrea, who had sat for the borough since 1806 and managed De Dunstanville’s interest, were returned by the ‘unanimous consent’ of the 32 corporators present. Afterwards, ‘50 guineas were distributed to the populace to make merry at the different public houses’ and ‘an elegant dinner was provided for the corporation’, followed by a ‘most numerously and fashionably attended’ ball and supper. Croker noted that he ‘danced, by order, with Miss Wallis and Miss Stone, the young female representatives ... of two parties in the town’. Next day, when he paid personal visits to the corporators, two members of ‘what are thought to be a discontented party’, the Rev. William Phillips and the cabinet-maker John Watkin, were ‘forward in offering their services on a future occasion’.5

The merchants, artisans and tradesmen of Bodmin and its vicinity petitioned the Commons for relief from agricultural distress, 30 May 1820.6 In November 1820 the news of the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline reached Bodmin on a Sunday, and the church bells were rung continuously ‘except during the time of divine service’. Next day ‘the greater part of the inhabitants mounted white cockades and flags were displayed’, and on successive evenings a firework display and a ‘general illumination’ took place. These proceedings were mostly orderly, but some squibs were thrown and pistols fired in the streets, prompting the mayor to summon a meeting of the inhabitants and swear in ‘several special constables’. However, claims that the authorities used heavy-handed methods to intimidate the populace appear to have been exaggerated. The corporation agreed a loyal address to the king, 8 Jan., which was signed by some of the inhabitants, while a petition to restore the queen’s name to the liturgy was presented to the Commons, 5 Feb. 1821.7 The inhabitants sent anti-slavery petitions to both Houses, 18, 25 Mar., and the ‘friends to religious liberty’ petitioned the Commons for inquiry into the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 27 May 1824.8

In the autumn of 1821 Gilbert was informed by his principal supporter, Alderman John Wallis, that steps were being taken to ‘prevent caballing’ within the corporation by ‘those who we may expect will annoy us’. Wallis’s son Christopher, an ‘infamous black sheep’, and Thomas, John and Nathanial Cradock, were among those working against Gilbert, who was advised next spring that he could rely on the support of only 21 corporators.9 Lengthy negotiations took place during 1822 to find a successor to De Dunstanville, which involved his agent, the St. Austell attorney Charles Rashleigh, Gilbert and Wallis. The 3rd marquess of Hertford, the Tory lord warden of the stannaries, was approached and offered to become sole patron, but it was finally agreed that he and Gilbert should take equal shares of the corporation debt. Hertford insisted on being the new recorder, and confided to his friend Croker his suspicion that Wallis wanted to name ‘Rashleigh ... or perhaps himself’ to the office, observing that if Wallis’s party was ‘not strong enough to name a recorder, or if Lord De Dunstanville’s friends wish for someone else to succeed him’, his own position would be untenable. Crucially, Wallis was elected mayor in September, and at the same meeting Gilbert’s proposal that Hertford be offered the recordership was ‘unanimously agreed’. Hertford was installed, 22 Oct. 1822, and appointed Wallis his deputy; he and Gilbert afterwards paid their respects to the corporators individually.10 Hertford quickly began to wonder whether he had done ‘a foolish thing’ by becoming involved in Bodmin. Within a month he received an application from one capital burgess, Wallis Penrose, for a loan of £3,000, which he refused, remarking to Croker that ‘if I get some more of these sort of requests I shall have quarrelled with the town before His Majesty dissolves ... Parliament’. The question of liability for old loans to individuals remained to be settled, and unexpected ones came to light which De Dunstanville and Rashleigh demanded should be taken off their hands. A list prepared in January 1823 showed that six corporators owed approximately £2,800. Hertford was willing to accept responsibility for ‘half of all debts so far recoverable in law as to have retained power on the day of our reign commencing, but not ancient ones functi by time or by services rendered’. Gilbert, however, felt ‘under such obligations’ to De Dunstanville that he wanted to ‘give him all he wished’, and it was left to Croker to arbitrate between Hertford and Gilbert as to their respective shares of the debt.11 More seriously, by early 1823 Hertford detected signs that Wallis’s party in the corporation was ‘crumbling’. An open challenge to the new dispensation came in September, when three informal meetings failed to agree on the nomination for mayor and ended in ‘drink, swearing and noise’. Consequently, only 18 attended the formal meeting on the 24th, one short of the majority required for the election to proceed. According to a local newspaper, the transfer of the patronage to Hertford had ‘not been satisfactory to a majority of the corporation’, who were ‘disposed either to choose a patron more agreeable to their views, or to dispense altogether with the services of a noble supervisor’, in the belief that they were ‘fully capable of taking care of themselves, and to find fit and proper persons to represent them’. One of the absentees wrote anonymously to contradict this account, explaining that he and his allies were ‘firmly attached’ to Hertford’s interest and prepared to ‘support it by every honourable means’. Their objection was to ‘the introduction into their body ... of such persons as may, in future, be dependent’, and to unspecified ‘abuses that have crept into the internal regulation of the borough’. Following a writ of mandamus the corporation met again, 17 Nov., when Walter Raleigh Gilbert was elected mayor by 18 votes to 17, defeating Wallis’s candidate, John Bennett; the majority included Christopher Wallis, the three Cradocks, Phillips, Thomas Stone and Robert Edyvean. A further mandamus was required before a vacancy for capital burgess could be filled, 29 Nov. 1823. Walter Gilbert rejected Wallis and Alderman Robert Flamank’s contention that no election should take place in Hertford’s absence, and Francis Gilbert was chosen by 18 votes to five over William Benny. Eleven others, all of whom had voted for Bennett as mayor, entered a protest ‘for various reasons and causes’ against the legality of the election. Hertford, who attributed these divisions to ‘Wallis’s family squabbles’ and to the untimely death of Rashleigh, was convinced that the majority were determined to ‘have all the favours and force us to give up Wallis and his friends’.12 Only fragmentary evidence survives with which to show how control of the corporation was regained from the ‘Bodmin disagreeables’. In November 1823 Hertford expected to receive a letter from Wallis asking for ‘the favours promised ... to the deserters from his party’, although he had misgivings about the possible effect on his own ‘neutrality’. It appears that in the spring of 1824 a further loan was made to the corporation, and Hertford wondered whether he and Gilbert should ‘do it generously’ or ‘get another hold’ on them by ‘lending ... the money on bond’. Shortly afterwards, Wallis pressed Hertford to apply to the treasury for the right to nominate officers in the port of Padstow, which was ‘immediately connected with this place in its commercial concerns’, and whose inhabitants were looking for a ‘new patron’ as John Stuart Wortley, Member for Bossiney, refused to act for them; it is not known if anything came of this. In September 1824 Wallis was elected mayor, and the following year Flamank succeeded him.13 At the general election of 1826 Gilbert and Hertford’s cousin, Horace Seymour, were returned with the ‘unanimous consent’ of the 30 corporators present. Hertford wrote to Croker, whom he had returned for Aldeburgh, that the election had gone ‘quietly’ and that he would spare him ‘a long [letter] from Wallis about favours’.14

Early in 1828 Hertford, who now lived mainly abroad, expressed dissatisfaction with Seymour’s poor attendance in the Commons, but admitted that he had ‘no fancy for a Bodmin re-election’.15 On 7 Jan. 1829, following a requisition signed by 122 Bodmin inhabitants ‘of all ranks’, including Wallis, Walter Gilbert, ‘ten clergymen and one Methodist preacher’, a joint meeting with the towns of Lostwithiel and Lanlivery on the Catholic question was held at the assize hall. George Borlase of Kirland took the chair and there was a ‘numerous assemblage of magistrates and gentlemen’, supported by a ‘large group of ladies ... waving their handkerchiefs’. Wallis and Nicholas Kenyon of Pelyn moved an anti-Catholic petition, which was carried by an ‘overwhelming majority’ after an adjournment motion proposed by the prominent county reformers, John Colman Rashleigh of Stoketon and William Peter of Chiverton, was rejected. The petition was ‘fully and respectably signed’ and presented to Parliament by the Tory county Member Sir Richard Vyvyan and Lord Falmouth, 24 Feb., 2 Mar.16 Gilbert told Seymour that ‘with the exception of one family in the town’, all the corporators were hostile to Catholic relief. Notwithstanding the strength of local feeling, Hertford instructed Seymour to support the Wellington ministry’s emancipation bill. This appears to have influenced Gilbert, who had previously wavered on the issue, to vote for the bill, but Seymour, purporting to have misunderstood his cousin’s wishes, absented himself from the House. An embarrassed Hertford feared that Gilbert would suspect him of duplicity and of having caused him to damage his own interest.17 The underlying tensions that persisted within the corporation almost resurfaced in September 1829 when, until the day of the mayoral election, ‘doubts were entertained as to [its] taking place’. Nevertheless, at the general election of 1830 Gilbert and Seymour were returned by the ‘unanimous consent’ of the 33 corporators present.18

The Wesleyan Methodists sent anti-slavery petitions to both Houses, 10, 16 Nov. 1830, and the inhabitants petitioned the Commons for repeal of the coal duties, 8 Feb. 1831.19 In December 1830, following the formation of Lord Grey’s ministry, Gilbert informed Hertford that he had ‘resolved not to offer myself again’ and that, ‘in the event of the Parliament continuing any considerable time’, he would ‘probably retire before another election’. He proposed that Hertford should relieve him of his share of the local debts and become sole patron, which prompted the incredulous peer to remark that he might ‘as well try to sell theatrical shares a week after the theatre is burnt’. Apart from the prospect of a reform bill, Gilbert was motivated by his reluctance to bear any of the cost of defending his supporters against quo warranto proceedings in king’s bench. These had been instigated by the capital burgess Samuel Spiller and appear to have stemmed from the election of Christopher Sloggett to a vacancy in 1827 in preference to Spiller’s nominee. Since that time, Spiller had endeavoured ‘from private motives’ to remove all those who had opposed him. Hertford had issued a warning that if any legal action were based on his absence from corporation elections, he would consider this as ‘a declaration of war on the part of the raisers’, and for some time this had ‘quieted them’. He ‘probably should never have heard more of it’, but for the fact that his ‘being in opposition and beyond the reach of the loaves and fishes has tempted them to begin again’. Early in 1831 rules were obtained in king’s bench against Sloggett, Benny, William Marshall, Preston Wallis, John Parkyn and John Rogers (whose position was open to challenge as they had been members for less than six years) on the grounds that either the mayor or the recorder had been absent or a majority had not been present. However, the proceedings were apparently not taken any further, and in 1834 all of the individuals targeted were still members of the corporation, except the deceased Sloggett.20 Presumably, the attack had been subsumed in the wider movement for reform in the borough. On 10 Jan. 1831 a public meeting, which the mayor, Bennett, had refused to summon, was held at Oliver’s Hotel, with Alderman Edyvean in the chair and other corporators present. A petition was agreed, in which it was stated that the inhabitants had the ‘misfortune of living within the immediate and contagious influence of a close borough, which has ... produced great disunion and general dissatisfaction, and retarded the improvement and prosperity of the town’. Complaint was also made that the inhabitants were ‘deprived of an efficient bench of magistrates’, as legal jurisdiction was monopolized by the mayor, his immediate predecessor and the recorder, and a concurrent jurisdiction for the county magistrates was requested. Whilst the petitioners were ‘opposed to any vital change or visionary schemes of reform’, they called on Parliament to ‘extend the elective franchise of the close boroughs’ and ‘introduce without delay’ a general measure of reform which would satisfy the ‘just expectations’ of the people and ‘conduce to the purity of election’. The petition was forwarded to the Whig county Member, Edward Wynne Pendarves, and lord chancellor Brougham for presentation, 9 Feb., 21 Mar. Edyvean explained to Brougham that reform of the magistracy was essential, as the existing system gave the dominant party in the corporation ‘undue influence - the control of the rates is entirely in their hands for they appoint three out of four of the parish officers’.21 The Grey ministry’s reform bill proposed to enfranchise the £10 householders but to reduce Bodmin’s representation to one seat. When Bennett again refused to convene a meeting, ‘a considerable number of the respectable inhabitants’ gathered at Oliver’s, 17 Mar., with Edyvean in the chair, to hear the attorney Edward Pearse and John Ward move to petition both Houses in favour of the bill. James Mitchell, the surveyor of taxes, moved an amendment against extending Bodmin’s franchise, but the petition was adopted ‘without a second dissentient voice’; it was presented by Lord Grey and Wynne Pendarves, 23, 28 Mar.22 Gilbert and Seymour opposed the bill, and the latter was dismissed from his post in the royal household. At the ensuing general election it was rumoured that Bodmin would be contested, although the identities of the new candidates were ‘not yet known’. In the event, as Gilbert recorded in his diary, ‘the opposed party absented themselves’ and he and Seymour were returned by the ‘unanimous consent’ of the 22 corporators present; the absentees included Edyvean, Christopher Wallis, Walter Gilbert, Phillips, Watkin and Spiller.23 In the Commons, 27 July, Davies Gilbert accepted that Bodmin’s population meant that it would remain in schedule B of the reintroduced reform bill, but he asserted that it was ‘neither a nomination nor a corrupt borough’ and that it was ‘one of the most rising towns in the country’. By the new criteria adopted for the revised reform bill of December 1831, Bodmin, which contained 596 houses and paid £984 in assessed taxes, was placed 88th in the list of the smallest English boroughs, and was thus one of several county towns which escaped partial disfranchisement as a result of the reduction in the size of schedule B.24 Edyvean chaired a ‘numerous and respectable’ meeting at Oliver’s, 21 May 1832, where the attorney Charles Coode and the conveyancer John Martyn Bligh moved a resolution welcoming the reinstatement of Grey’s ministry, which was adopted. The reform bill’s passage was marked by ‘scenes of rejoicing ... such as were never before witnessed’, 19 June 1832, when ‘triumphal arches’ were erected, ‘nearly the whole of the population’ formed a procession, and fireworks, dancing and other festivities followed.25

The boundary commissioners recommended that Bodmin’s limits should be substantially enlarged through the inclusion of the adjoining parishes of Lanivet, Lanhydrock and Helland. There were 252 registered electors in 1832, of whom 30 were corporators. Hertford and Gilbert promptly took action to recover their loans to the corporation.26 At the general election in December 1832 Gilbert and Seymour retired and Peter, who had been invited to stand by the electors, was returned with the moderate Liberal Samuel Spry ahead of another Liberal. Peter retired in 1835 and Spry became a Conservative; thereafter the representation was usually shared. Bodmin’s reputation for venality persisted, thanks in part to the activities of remnants of the old corporation.27 It lost one of its seats in 1868 and was disfranchised in 1885.

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1830-1), x. 59.
  • 2. Ibid. (1831-2), xxxviii. 67.
  • 3. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 247-8; S. Drew, Hist. Cornw. (1824), ii. 95-97; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 135; Parochial Hist. Cornw. i. 105-9; PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 65; (1835), xxiii. 449.
  • 4. PP (1830-1), x. 59; (1831-2), xxxvi. 501; xxxviii. 65; (1835), xxiii. 441-50; Croker Pprs. i. 165; Wellington mss WP1/1037/18; R. Cornw. Gazette, 12 Feb. 1820.
  • 5. Cornw. RO, Gilbert mss DD/DG/20, diary, 4, 9 Mar.; AD/1041, Bodmin corporation minute bk., 9 Mar.; West Briton, 10, 17 Mar. 1820; Croker Pprs. i. 166-7.
  • 6. CJ, lxxv. 251.
  • 7. West Briton, 17, 24 Nov., 1 Dec. 1820, 19 Jan. 1821; CJ, lxxvi. 32.
  • 8. CJ, lxxix. 177, 422; LJ, lvi. 110
  • 9. A.C. Todd, Beyond the Blaze: A Biography of Davies Gilbert, 201.
  • 10. Add. 60286, ff. 238, 247, 256, 276; AD/1041, corporation minute bk., 24 Sept., 19, 22 Oct.; Gilbert mss DD/DG/21, diary, 24 Sept., 22-23 Oct.; West Briton, 11, 25 Oct. 1822; PP (1835), xxiii. 448-9.
  • 11. Add. 60286, ff. 304, 306, 331, 334, 371, 401.
  • 12. Add. 60286, ff. 332, 391; Todd, 203; AD/1041, corporation minute bk., 17, 29 Nov.; West Briton, 26 Sept., 3 Oct., 21 Nov., 5 Dec.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 6 Dec. 1823.
  • 13. Add. 60286, ff. 391, 394; 60287, ff. 24, 53, 64; AD/1041, corporation minute bk., 24 Sept. 1824, 24 Sept. 1825.
  • 14. West Briton, 9 June; AD/1041, corporation minute bk., 9 June 1826; Add. 60287, f. 201.
  • 15. Add. 60288, f. 13.
  • 16. West Briton, 2, 9 Jan.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 3, 10, 17 Jan., 7 Feb. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 81; LJ, lxi. 95.
  • 17. Add. 60288, ff. 107, 139, 163.
  • 18. West Briton, 25 Sept. 1829, 31 July, 7 Aug.; AD/1041, corporation minute bk., 31 July 1830.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxvi. 53, 222; LJ, lxiii. 55.
  • 20. Add. 60288, ff. 331, 335; West Briton, 4 Feb. 1831.
  • 21. West Briton, 14 Jan.; CJ, lxxxvi. 226; LJ, lxiii. 348; Brougham mss, Edyvean to Brougham, 5 Feb. 1831.
  • 22. West Briton, 28 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 446; LJ, lxiii. 363.
  • 23. West Briton, 29 Apr.; Gilbert mss DD/DG/23, diary, 30 Apr.; AD/1041, corporation minute bk., 30 Apr. 1831.
  • 24. J. Cannon, Parliamentary Reform, 228-9.
  • 25. West Briton, 25 May, 22 June 1832.
  • 26. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 65; (1835), xxiii. 449-50.
  • 27. R. Cornw. Gazette, 23 June, 28 July, 15 Dec. 1832; E. Jaggard, Cornwall Politics in Age of Reform, 122-3, 129.