Co. Westmeath


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

Background Information

Number of registered freeholders:

2,601 in 1829; 641 in 1830

Number of voters:

2,507 in 18261


5 Mar. 1824ROBERT SMYTH vice Rochfort, deceased 
 Robert Smyth1217
 Richard Malone541
 Hugh Morgan Tuite198
 Gerald Dease86

Main Article

Westmeath was predominantly arable, producing mainly oats and potatoes. There were several market towns, including Castle Pollard, Moate and Rathowen, the disfranchised boroughs of Fore, Kilbeggan and Mullingar, the venue for county elections, and the parliamentary borough of Athlone, which lay partly in Roscommon.2 The representation had long been dominated by the childless George Rochfort, 2nd earl of Belvidere, whose kinsman Gustavus Hume Rochfort had sat since 1798. Following Belvidere’s death in 1814 and the breakup of his estates, however, the commanding interest had passed to Thomas Pakenham, 2nd earl of Longford, of Pakenham Hall, Castle Pollard. His brother Hercules had in 1808 replaced William Smyth, the nominee of the ailing Nugent interest headed by George Frederick Nugent, 7th earl of Westmeath. Unsuccessful attempts to unseat the sitting Members had been mounted by Westmeath’s heir Lord Delvin and Robert Stearne Tighe of Michelstown, both of whom had solicited the support of William Handcock, 1st Baron Castlemaine, the proprietor of Athlone, Sir Thomas Chapman of Killua, the various branches of the Smyth family and a growing ‘Catholic interest’.3

At the 1820 general election Rochfort and Pakenham offered again. Tighe urged the electors to ‘change your representatives’ and insist that they ‘give some pledge for the future’, as ‘Ireland is neither prosperous or safe’, but declined to stand himself. There was no opposition.4 Both Members continued to support the Liverpool ministry. Only Pakenham attended to oppose Catholic claims in 1821, but Rochfort paired against the bill to relieve Catholic peers of their disabilities the following year. On Rochfort’s death in 1824 his son and heir Gustavus, with only a modest inheritance, refused to come forward, despite the solicitations of ‘numerous friends’. Robert Smyth of Drumcree, only son of William Smyth, offered, citing ‘nearly similar’ political principles to those of his father and refusing to be ‘bound by any pledges’. He was supported by Longford, Richard Malone of Baronston, his proposer, and Chapman, who apparently looked on him as ‘a sort of locum tenens’ until his son Montagu came of age. Hugh Morgan Tuite of Sonna, the pro-Catholic son of a resident gentleman of ‘about £5,000 per annum’, made a ‘limited canvass’, but on finding ‘the strong interests combined’ against him withdrew, hinting that he intended to stand at the next general election. Richard Levinge of Knockdrim Castle was also spoken of and obtained ‘numerous assurances of support’, but he declined from ‘circumstances of a private nature’, requesting that his friends ‘keep themselves disengaged for any future election’. Smyth, who claimed to be ‘truly independent’, was returned unopposed. At the chairing he scattered a large bag of silver.5 He opposed Catholic claims, to which Pakenham became a convert in 1825, much to the dismay of Longford. During the rumours of a dissolution that September it was reported to Peel, the home secretary, that the ‘Westmeath Protestant gentlemen’ were ‘outraged with Pakenham for his votes’ on the issue.6 The following month the grand jury met at Moate to condemn the ‘outrages’ that had followed the rejection of the Catholic relief bill and call on the magistrates for ‘stronger punishments’.7

At the 1826 general election Pakenham retired amidst reports, which he repudiated, that he had been ‘discarded’ by his brother and the ‘high Protestant interest’. Smyth stood again, denying allegations in the Catholic press, which pilloried him as ‘the most stupid and silly man in the county’, that he was ‘a person advocating violent political opinions’. Gustavus Rochfort, whose family had ‘long abandoned their influence’, came forward on the ‘Purple [Longford] and Orange interest’, citing his father’s services. A series of placards, allegedly produced by the Catholic Association, charged him with being ‘put forward by an intolerant and bigoted faction, who if they could, would exterminate you and every other Catholic off the face of the earth’, and denounced him and Smyth as ‘two puppets in the hands of the Orange faction’ and ‘the sworn enemies of you and your religion’. Tuite declared on the Catholic interest, stating his independence from ‘any particular line of politics’ and his belief that emancipation would restore tranquillity. He urged his supporters, who included Malone, Sir Richard Nagle of Jamestown and Longford’s uncle, Admiral Sir Thomas Pakenham, to ‘abstain from a violent and inflammatory course’. The Irish under-secretary Gregory informed Peel that the ‘Popish priests are endeavouring to detach the tenants from their Protestant landlords in Westmeath to support Tuite, but they are not expected to succeed’.8 During the ensuing contest over 100 people were wounded and two men killed in ‘scenes that would disgrace the inhabitants of New Zealand’. Smyth was proposed by Chapman, Rochfort by Richard Handcock* and Tuite, who arrived in a ‘caravan drawn by a motley crew of the sans culottes armed with bludgeons’, by Malone. On the first day it became clear that the ‘real struggle’ would be between Smyth and Tuite, whereupon Malone was ‘started as a fourth candidate by the liberal party’. (The Catholic freeholders had initially been advised to give their second votes to Smyth, on the grounds that it was ‘better to have an idiot than an Orangeman’ returned.) During the second day, at the close of which Rochfort had secured 681 votes, Smyth 577, Tuite 494 and Malone an unspecified number, the Catholic priests were reported to have been ‘very busy about the booths, threatening, persuading and noting down such as voted contrary to their wishes’, whom they advised to ‘prepare their coffins or leave the country’. For the next six days polling was repeatedly interrupted by disturbances and on the seventh a troop of cavalry was sent to disperse the rioters. One of the agents recorded ‘great complaints about locking up voters, stopping them on the roads, beating and swearing them to vote for the priests’ friends, closing booths, etc.’, and that ‘it don’t seem a gentlemanly contest’. Rochfort and Tuite were returned on the eighth day, when Smyth, who was only 24 votes behind, objected to the closure of the poll. Smyth absented himself from the declaration, leaving his kinsman Henry Smyth to denounce the ‘unconstitutional’ interference of the priests who had ‘prostituted their altars’ for Tuite, and to promise to challenge the return. Tuite denied that the contest had been ‘carried on riotously’ and praised the ‘good temper and orderly conduct’ of his supporters before dispensing silver from the chair, which Rochfort declined to do. A mob later went on the rampage, chanting ‘Come out, you bloody Orangemen’, and, ‘We have not forgotten ‘98 yet’.9 The contest was one of those later described by the Whig James Abercromby* as ‘a sort of little bloodless revolution’, in which ‘the political power of the state has passed from the landed aristocracy’ into ‘the hands of the Catholic priests, the natural enemies of the government’; the ‘alliance of gentry in favour of Lord Longford was so great that he looked with scorn on Tuite’, who ‘with the evil of the priests triumphed’.10

Smyth’s petition, alleging that his supporters had been kidnapped by mobs, threatened with ‘excommunication’ by the priests and had their ‘affidavits of registry’ unfairly rejected, and that the poll had been ‘illegally terminated early’, was presented on 22 Nov. 1826. Citing the admission of 12 Catholic freeholders with ‘estates for the life of one Peyton John Gamble, who had died three months before’, he complained of ‘gross impartiality’ in the issuing of affidavits by Jonathon Ardill, a clerk of the peace, whose nephew Thomas had been retained by Tuite. If the 50 freeholders ‘improperly allowed were taken off the pollbooks’, he contended, he would have a majority.11 The petition lapsed, 11 Dec., but one in similar terms from Smyth’s supporters, who included his kinsman Ralph Smyth of Gaybrook, William Fetherston of Carrick and Tighe, was presented, 4 Dec. 1826. Petitions complaining of an insufficient Member’s property qualification were presented against Rochfort, 27 Nov., and Tuite, 8 Dec., 1826, but lapsed, 12 Dec. 1826 and 8 Feb. 1827 respectively.12 On 14 Feb. 1827 Tuite unexpectedly announced that he would not defend his return, but Nagle, Malone and others successfully petitioned to be admitted as parties for his defence, 8 Mar. 1827. A commission of inquiry was appointed, 29 Mar., but it disintegrated the following year, whereupon a committee was appointed, 18 Apr., which ruled in Tuite’s favour, 28 Apr. 1828.13

Rochfort opposed and Tuite supported Catholic relief, against which petitions condemning the Association and the ‘undisguised interference of the priesthood’ in the late election were presented to the Commons, 12 Feb., 2 Mar. 1827. Favourable ones reached the Commons, 26 Mar. 1827, 18 Feb., 2 May 1828, and the Lords, 6 Mar. 1827.14 One against alteration of the corn laws was presented to the Lords, 11 June 1827.15 Following appeals by the Westmeath Journal, a Brunswick Club, whose vice-presidents included Gustavus Lambart of Beau Parc, Fetherston and Rochfort, a founder member of the Brunswick Constitutional Club of Ireland, was established at Tyrrellpass, 27 Oct. 1828. Longford and the Handcock were toasted at an Orange celebration at Moate, 4 Nov. That month Longford provided the duke of Wellington, the premier, with ‘a cypher’ used by the Jesuits, but added that the language employed at Catholic meetings ‘tells more ... than any cypher can indicate’.16 On 25 Nov. 1828 the Westmeath Brunswick Club held its inaugural meeting at Mullingar, attended by Longford, Fetherston, Henry Smyth and Rochfort, when a petition against Catholic claims was started.17 Tuite was a convenor for the meeting of the ‘friends of civil and religious liberty’ at the Rotunda, Dublin, 20 Jan. 1829.18 He and Rochfort took opposite sides on the Wellington ministry’s concession of emancipation, for which petitions were presented to the Commons, 17 Feb., 3, 10 Mar. 1829. Hostile ones reached the Commons, 3 Mar., and the Lords, 27 Mar.19 By the accompanying alteration of the franchise the registered electorate was reduced from 2,601 to 641, of whom 170 qualified at the new minimum freehold of £10, 125 at £20 and 346 at £50.20 Nagle was a member of the committee established for the O’Connell testimonial, 25 Mar.21 Petitions were presented to the Lords for repeal of the Irish Subletting Act, 12 Feb., and to the Commons for the introduction of an Irish poor law, 28 May.22 In November 1829 Viscount Forbes, Member for county Longford, informed Lord Anglesey, the former viceroy, that Westmeath was in a ‘disturbed’ state.23

At the 1830 general election Rochfort offered again. He was joined by Tuite, who cited his opposition to increased taxation and infringements on the ‘liberty of the press’. Smyth was spoken of but declined, and Montagu Chapman, recently of age, declared on the combined interest of his father and Longford, who were said to have formed a ‘complete coalition’ for the ‘purpose of ousting Tuite, whose triumph over them in 1826 will never be forgiven’. Nicholas Fitzsimon of Broughall Castle, King’s County, was rumoured but declined a requisition from the Catholics, who at the last minute put up Gerald Dease of Turbotston, nephew of the 8th earl of Fingall and cousin of Lord Killeen, Member for county Meath. An observer in Mullingar reported that ‘there promises to be a wicked contest here’ and that ‘the priests are already interfering in a most unconstitutional manner’.24 At the nomination Rochfort was proposed by Handcock, Tuite by Nagle and Chapman by William Dutton Pollard of Castle Pollard. At the end of the first day Rochfort had 238 votes, Chapman 223, Tuite 147, and Dease 61. Next day Tuite, noting that he had been ‘rather remiss’ in his canvass, and Dease retired. It was later claimed that ‘but for the frivolous objections’ lodged by the Catholics ‘for the purpose of delay, upwards of nearly 200 more votes would have been polled in their favour’.25 Westmeath was erroneously listed as a ‘gain’ by the Wellington ministry, which both Members helped to vote out of office. The Grey ministry’s reform bill was supported by Chapman, but opposed by Rochfort.

At the 1831 general election Rochfort, who had been reconciled to the Tories, stood firm, ‘sufficient’ party funds having been placed at his disposal.26 Chapman offered as an ‘uncompromising’ supporter of reform, over which many of his former supporters, including the anti-Tory Brunswickers, were reported to be ‘deeply divided’. Sensing an opening, a number of candidates declared and another ‘severe contest’ was expected. Tuite started but withdrew, whereupon Percy Fitzgerald Nugent of Donmore, the head of ‘a respectable Catholic family’, came forward professing support for ‘peace, economy and reform’. Smyth offered, promising to resume his previous line of conduct. Levinge, who was last spoken of in 1824, also came forward in response to a requisition from the ‘independent’ interest. The return of Rochfort was deemed certain by the Protestant press, which contended that ‘plumpers will be given to him in the event of a contest, even by the personal friends and the relations of his colleague’. In the event, however, Nugent, Levinge and Smyth agreed to retire at the nomination (the latter after some persuasion), ‘in order to prevent the county being disturbed’. Rochfort, who was reported to have ‘undergone a change’ and given a ‘sort of pledge’ for reform, and Chapman were returned unopposed.27 Rochfort continued to oppose and Chapman to support reform. Petitions reached the Lords condemning the reform bill as ‘short-sighted’ and ‘erected upon the shifting foundation of popular clamour’, 15 July 1831, and one in favour, 20 Feb. 1832.28 That month Chapman attended a county meeting to vote a petition for an Irish measure ‘as effective and comprehensive’ as the English one, which he presented, 9 Mar.29 Petitions were presented to the Commons against the Irish education plan, 26 Jan., and for the abolition of tithes, 9 Mar.30 Rochfort presented one from the magistrates and the newly appointed lord lieutenant, the marquess of Westmeath, complaining of the ‘defiance of the peasantry’ and for greater powers ‘to restrain insurgency’, 15 Mar. 1832.31 The Irish Reform Act did not add any leaseholders to the freeholders, who had increased to 1,395 (985 registered at £10, 140 at £20, and 270 at £50).32 Thereafter the Handcock and Longford interests retained ‘much weight at elections’, but ‘lost the predominance’.33 Only 486 voters polled at the 1832 general election, when the Liberals Chapman and Nagle defeated the Conservatives Rochfort and Gustavus Lambart.34 The county remained a Liberal stronghold until the advent of Home Rule.

Author: Philip Salmon


  • 1. PP (1829), xxii. 22.
  • 2. S. Lewis, Top. Dict. of Ireland (1837), ii. 695.
  • 3. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 696-7.
  • 4. The Times, 17 Feb.; Dublin Evening Post, 2, 9, 14 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Westmeath Jnl. 12, 26 Feb., 11 Mar. 1824.
  • 6. Add. 40381, f. 209.
  • 7. Westmeath Jnl. 20 Oct. 1825.
  • 8. Brougham mss, Abercromby to Brougham, 12 July; The Times, 27 May, 6 June; Westmeath Jnl. 8, 15, 22 June; Dublin Evening Post, 10, 17, 22 June 1826; Add. 40334, f. 171; CJ, lxxxii. 17.
  • 9. Westmeath Jnl. 29 June, 6 July; Dublin Evening Post, 27 June 1826.
  • 10. Brougham mss, Abercromby to Brougham, 12 July 1826.
  • 11. Westmeath Jnl. 30 Nov. 1826; CJ, lxxxii. 16-17.
  • 12. CJ, lxxxii. 32, 33, 56, 107, 111, 112, 126.
  • 13. Ibid. 168, 293, 429; lxxxiii. 244, 277.
  • 14. Ibid. lxxxii. 154, 254, 358; lxxxiii. 78, 304; LJ, lix. 136.
  • 15. LJ, lix. 395.
  • 16. Wellington mss WP1/966/3.
  • 17. Westmeath Jnl. 28 Aug., 25 Sept., 2, 30 Oct., 13, 27 Nov., 4 Dec. 1828.
  • 18. Dublin Evening Post, 8 Jan. 1829.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxiv. 42, 98, 121; LJ, lxi. 302.
  • 20. PP (1830), xxix. 462-3.
  • 21. Dublin Evening Post, 26 Mar. 1829.
  • 22. LJ, lxi. 29; CJ, lxxxiv. 349.
  • 23. PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/32/A/3/1/239.
  • 24. Dublin Evening Post, 29 July, 3, 14 Aug. 1830; NLI, Farnham mss 18602 (40), Hodson to Maxwell, 9 Aug. 1830.
  • 25. Dublin Evening Post, 12, 14 Aug.; Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 14 Aug. 1830.
  • 26. Farnham mss 18606 (1), Arbuthnot to Farnham, 4 May 1831.
  • 27. Dublin Evening Post, 3, 5, 12 May; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1800; The Times, 13 May; Roscommon and Leitrim Gazette, 7, 14 May 1831.
  • 28. LJ, lxiii. 821; lxiv. 62.
  • 29. CJ, lxxxvii. 177.
  • 30. Ibid. 52, 177-8.
  • 31. Ibid. 196.
  • 32. PP (1833), xxvii. 301.
  • 33. Dod’s Electoral Facts ed. H.J. Hanham, 333.
  • 34. PP (1833), xxvii. 301.