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:

36 in 1831


1,510 (1821); 1,599 (1831)



Main Article

Christchurch, a market town close to the Dorset border, lay at the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Stour, but by the nineteenth century its natural harbour was too shallow to accommodate any but the smallest craft. In 1832 the boundary commissioners recorded that ‘the town presents no symptoms of activity or industry. The houses are of a middling description. The appearance of the inhabitants, who are thinly scattered, gives few indications of prosperity’.1 The patron in 1820 was Sir George Henry Rose of Cuffnells, near Lyndhurst, who owned a second residence in Mudeford, just over a mile to the east of the borough. From his father George Rose, ‘the great sinecurist’ and Member from 1790 until his death in 1818, he had inherited a commanding interest, which he subsequently strengthened ‘by buying up every piece of disposable property in the borough’ and with philanthropic gestures, including provision of land for a school and an annual donation of £50 to the poor.2 The franchise had long been vested in the corporation, a self-elected body completely under Rose’s dominion, to which there were 20 admissions from 1820-31, when the numbers peaked at 36.3 At most, 14 corporators satisfied the residency requirement for voting by ancient right in the post-reform borough, and by 1835 only 12 were eligible, among them the royal dukes of Cumberland and Cambridge, the Members of this period, and three members of Rose’s family. The mayor, who served as returning officer, was notionally chosen from corporation nominees by the ‘inhabitant housekeepers’ every September, but all holders of this post between 1790 and 1831 were non-resident and appointed a deputy to carry out their duties. In 1822 the office devolved on Sir Harry Burrard Neale*, patron and sometime Member for the neighbouring borough of Lymington.4 Oldfield, who counted 24 members of the corporation in 1820, claimed that the right of election had been illegally appropriated from the inhabitants at large and that a bid to open the borough might be undertaken ‘with the best founded prescription of success, as they have not the contrary resolutions of former committees to combat ... but a clear and distinct right established by prescription, and opposed only by an arbitrary monopoly’. However, such an attempt had failed in 1806 and the status quo remained unchallenged after 1820. (A reform bill return describing the franchise as ‘scot and lot’ was probably nothing more than an error.)5

Rose was anxious to obtain leave from his diplomatic post at Berlin to attend the general election of 1820, but it was not granted in time. He may have been concerned at the possibility of an opposition, such as that which had been rumoured at the 1818 general election.6 In the event, he was returned unopposed in absentia with his nominee William Sturges Bourne, whose residence at Testwood, near Southampton, enabled him to keep a close eye on the borough.7 There was ‘general rejoicing’ in the town following the rejection of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline in November. By contrast, a loyal address from the corporation in early December 1820 warned that ‘the liberty of the press’ was being ‘perverted to the purposes of anarchy and atheism’ by her supporters.8 On 17 Feb. 1825 a petition reached the Commons for the enclosure of ‘certain waste lands’ and ‘common fields’, for which a bill was introduced by the Members, 29 Apr.; it received royal assent, 10 June 1825.9 A petition from landholders against repeal of the corn laws reached the Commons, 18 Apr. 1826.10 At that year’s general election it was reported that Sturges Bourne would retire in favour of Rose’s eldest son George Pitt Rose, whose ‘close connection’ with the corporation would ensure success. Father and son were duly returned unopposed. Before the formalities, the corporation dined at the residence of the deputy mayor and afterwards the poor were regaled with ‘plenty of strong beer’.11 Petitions for repeal of the Test Acts, which both Members resisted, were presented by William Ponsonby, Member for nearby Poole, 31 May 1827, 26 Feb. 1828.12 One against the Wellington ministry’s concession of Catholic emancipation, which the Members steadily opposed, was presented by Sir George Rose, 9 Mar. 1829, when a favourable petition from local Dissenters was brought up by Lord John Russell.13 Petitions reached the Lords against emancipation, 24 Mar., and in favour, 27 Mar. 1829.14

At the 1830 general election the Members were re-elected unopposed, after which the burgesses, with whom they had ritually processed to the town hall, were given a ‘sumptuous dinner’.15 An unsigned handbill to the inhabitants denounced this cosy arrangement, 20 Dec., asserting that ‘the war, the taxes, the distress, had all their origin in the corrupt character of the House Of Commons’, and that ‘even the people of Christchurch no longer consider a little beef and beer once a twelvemonth, an equivalent for a seat in Parliament, and three or four thousands a year’. It ended with a call for parliamentary reform and the secret ballot.16 Following disturbances in the town during the ‘Swing’ agricultural protests, five men were committed to the county gaol on charges of riot, 5 Nov. 1830.17 On 1 Feb. 1831, against the wishes of the mayor, a meeting was held at the White Hart Inn in support of parliamentary reform, chaired by George Aldridge, a merchant whose family were prominent in the ensuing reform agitation. Attended mainly by ‘respectable inhabitants engaged generally in commercial pursuits’, moderation prevailed: a motion to commit the meeting to the secret ballot came to nothing and due respects were paid to the burgesses and Members ‘as individuals’. The published proceedings later marvelled that such an event could have occurred ‘in the degraded, pension-sold rotten borough of Christchurch’.18 Their petition for reform was presented to the Commons by Lord Althorp, 26 Feb., and to the Lords by Lord King, 28 Feb. Another in favour of the Grey ministry’s reform bill reached the Commons, 18 Mar.19 Both Members opposed that measure, but were nonetheless returned unopposed at the 1831 general election, of which no account has been found. An address to the king that October condemned the ‘rash and intemperate’ conduct of the Lords in rejecting the bill and urged its reintroduction ‘without delay’. A petition couched in similar terms reached the Lords, 3 Oct. 1831.20 Reformers were prominent at a meeting in February 1832 to set up a watch under the aegis of John Spicer, the first resident mayor for a generation, and during the crisis of May another address was sent to the king in support of the bill, which was deemed ‘essential to the peace and tranquillity’ of the country.21 Celebrations to mark its passage were marred when a mortar fired in salute injured three spectators, 9 June.22 A committee of reformers started a subscription ‘for the purpose of regaling the poor in celebrating the passing of the reform bill’, and a dinner of beef and plum pudding was duly given, 25 July 1832. By prior arrangement, no illumination took place.23

Christchurch had been spared from being placed in the disfranchisement schedules of the first reform bill on account of the population of its parish, which stood at 4,644 in 1821, but as the returning officer readily acknowledged, the parish limits greatly exceeded those of the borough. (The borough comprised just one of the parish’s ten tithings.) It was cited by Lord John Russell as a notable example of the inequality of tax assessments, 24 June 1831, and the boundary commissioners estimated that only 80 houses would qualify for the new £10 householder franchise, but reckoned that under a ‘fair and equitable assessment’ of the whole parish, the number of qualifying houses would ‘exceed 300’. ‘Should the legislature deem it proper to extend the suffrage to the parish at large’, they added, ‘there is no place in the kingdom where ... the measure will be attended with more beneficial effects than at Christchurch’.24 After subsequent investigation, however, it was found that ‘the town’ extended no further beyond the old borough than into the neighbouring tithings of Bure and Street, an area which contained 459 houses paying assessed taxes of £518. Under the criteria adopted for the final bill, the borough was thus condemned to partial disfranchisement, which was confirmed without dissent in the Commons, 23 Feb. 1832. It was nevertheless enlarged along the lines previously suggested to include both the entire parish of Christchurch (except the northern portion of the tithing of Hurn) and the associated chapelry of Holdenhurst, which lay to the west of the old borough and extended as far as the Dorset border. The reformed constituency, which covered over 35 square miles and extended ten miles from east to west, contained a population of 6,087.25 It was predicted that this would furnish 402 £10 householders, but in the event the registered electorate in 1832 numbered 206, of whom 195 qualified as householders. (Nine of the estimated 14 resident burgesses apparently opted to retain their ‘ancient right’ qualification.)26

The reformers were contemplating their candidate for the post-reform election as early as November 1831, when they drafted a requisition to Sir Francis Charles Knowles of Lovel Hill, who had challenged the patron of Shaftesbury at the elections of 1830 and 1831.27 As nothing came of this, they turned to George William Tapps, who had shown an interest in the borough before 1820, and whose family seat at Hinton Admiral lay within the enlarged constituency. In terms of politics and assiduity, his record as Member for New Romney in the 1826 Parliament did not bear close scrutiny, though he was classed as a ‘moderate reformer’ after his unopposed return for Christchurch in 1832.28 His retirement at the dissolution in 1837 paved the way for the re-election of Sir George Henry Rose, after a close contest with a Liberal. The Conservative favour in use at Rose’s unopposed return in 1841 was a rose, an indication of the abiding strength of personal ties in the borough. He retired in 1844.29

Authors: Howard Spencer / Philip Salmon


  • 1. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1823-4), 311; (1830), 412-7; PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 219.
  • 2. [W. Carpenter], The People’s Bk. (1831), 35; Salisbury Jnl. 26 Jan. 1829; Historical and Descriptive Account of ... Christchurch (1837), 8-9.
  • 3. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 514; Dorset RO, Red House Museum mss D/RHM 8065.
  • 4. PP (1835), xxiv. 595-96; Salisbury Jnl. 23 Sept. 1822.
  • 5. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 521-2; Key (1820), 164; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 322.
  • 6. Add. 42781, f. 183.
  • 7. Salisbury Jnl. 20 Mar., Hants Telegraph, 27 Mar. 1820.
  • 8. Salisbury Jnl. 20 Nov., 11 Dec. 1820.
  • 9. CJ, lxxx. 52, 354; LJ, lvii. 1020.
  • 10. CJ, lxxxi. 254.
  • 11. Salisbury Jnl. 5, 12 June 1826.
  • 12. CJ, lxxxii. 510; lxxxiii. 105; The Times, 1 June 1828.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxiv. 114-5.
  • 14. LJ, lxi. 266, 299.
  • 15. Portsmouth Herald, 30 July 1830.
  • 16. Red House Museum mss D/RHM 8159/1.
  • 17. Salisbury Jnl. 10 Nov. 1830.
  • 18. Ibid. 24 Jan., 7 Feb. 1831; Red House Museum mss D/RHM 3159, 7894.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxvi. 309, 402; LJ, lxiii. 267.
  • 20. Red House Museum mss D/RHM 7188d; LJ, lxxxvi. 309.
  • 21. PP (1831-2), xxiv. 595; Red House Museum mss D/RHM 7726; 7188g.
  • 22. Salisbury Jnl. 11 June 1832.
  • 23. Ibid., 23, 30 July; Red House Museum mss D/RHM 7188c, e, f, j.
  • 24. PP (1830-1), x. 7, 66; (1831), xvi. 92-93.
  • 25. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 298-301; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 432.
  • 26. PP (1831-2), xxxix. 219-21; Red House Museum mss D/RHM 8065; P. Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work, 258.
  • 27. Red House Museum mss D/RHM 7188h.
  • 28. Ibid. 7188a, i; Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to Fitzharris, 17 Jan. 1818; Dod’s Parl. Companion (1833), 165.
  • 29. Hants Telegraph, 3 July 1841.