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 freemen

Estimated number qualified to vote:

43 in 18311


4,348 (1821); 4,508 (1831)


10 Mar. 1820JOHN BASTARD 
8 Apr. 1822HON. JAMES HAMILTON STANHOPE vice Ricketts, vacated his seat 
24 Mar. 1825JOHN HUTTON COOPER vice Stanhope, deceased 
12 June 1826JOHN BASTARD 
26 Jan. 1829ARTHUR HOWE HOLDSWORTH vice Cooper, deceased 
 John Henry Seale 
 Sir Henry Willoughby, bt. 

Main Article

Dartmouth, a seaport and market town situated on a ‘steep hillside rising from the west bank of the Dart estuary’, about one mile from the English Channel, had prospered for several centuries thanks to its ‘capacious’ natural harbour. However, the damage inflicted by wars on the Newfoundland fishing fleet and the Portuguese wine trade, and the decline of the woollen textile industry in Devon, meant that Dartmouth’s economy was stagnant by the early nineteenth century and depended heavily on its coastal trade; even this had ‘lately been diminished by the rivalry of neighbouring ports’. There was some related industrial activity, notably shipbuilding and rope making, but its ‘strangulated site along the water’s edge’ prevented Dartmouth from developing as a major manufacturing centre. An Improvement Act in 1815 led to the widening of some streets and the construction of a new market house in 1829.2

The borough comprised the parishes of St. Petrox and St. Saviour and most of Townstall. Local power was exercised by the corporation, which consisted of 12 common councilmen (who until 1830 improperly appointed from among their number a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections) and an indefinite number of freemen, from whom the common councilmen were selected; all held their offices for life. Freemen could only be created by the common council, and the franchise was vested in them. Since the 1720s, the corporation had been controlled by the Holdsworth family of Mount Galpin, successive generations of whom served as governors of Dartmouth Castle. In return for securing the election of government supporters, extensive patronage was placed at their disposal, such as customs and excise appointments, the collectorship of customs in St. Johns, Newfoundland (alternately with Poole), the postmastership of Dartmouth and the crown livings of Brixham and Stokenham. These rewards were distributed among the corporators, who included several members of the Holdsworth family, their cousins the Brookings, Hunts and Taylors, and other clients. One radical newspaper claimed that the corporation received £6,000 per annum of public money. Its partisan character was shown by the gift of £100 in 1818 to support the Tory Edmund Pollexfen Bastard* in the Devon county election, and by the fact that despite the repeal of the Test Acts in 1828 it remained exclusively Anglican. Among the inhabitants there was ‘much jealousy’ of the Holdsworths’ dominant position, resentment of the freemen’s exemption from the town dues levied on shipping and a willingness to believe that a ‘rotten borough system’ was sacrificing Dartmouth’s commercial prosperity ‘for its own security’. The Seale family of Mount Boone, who had acquired much property in the borough and its vicinity, provided a potential focus for opposition to the Holdsworth interest. During the eighteenth century the two families had been involved in various disputes over economic matters, and in 1790 John Seale offered for the borough and petitioned unsuccessfully against the result.3

In 1820 John Bastard of nearby Sharpham and Charles Ricketts, a cousin of the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, were again returned unopposed. When Ricketts retired in 1822 he was replaced by James Stanhope, a son of the 3rd Earl Stanhope, and following his suicide in 1825 John Hutton Cooper, a member of the duke of Clarence’s household, filled the vacancy. The merchants and ship agents petitioned the Lords for reduction of the lighthouse dues, which they blamed for the decline in foreign shipping using the port, 23 Aug. 1820.4 In November 1820 the news of the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline was greeted with bell ringing, an ‘almost general’ illumination and a public dinner. It was claimed that ‘the borough interest’ tried to ‘suppress this public manifestation of joy’ and 50 special constables were sworn in; they were not needed. The attorney John Smith drafted a congratulatory address to the queen, which received 497 signatures, and organized a Commons’ petition for restoring her name to the liturgy, which was presented with 1,260 names attached to it, 26 Jan. 1821. At a guildhall meeting, 27 Dec. 1820, Governor Arthur Howe Holdsworth moved a loyal address to the king in a speech which was published. This was countered by a pamphlet from Smith, who later complained about the ‘unprecedented number of ... handbills posted against the walls of this town’ attacking him, and maintained that he was a reformer, not a revolutionary.5 The merchants and ship owners engaged in the coal trade with Wales petitioned the Commons against the lighthouse dues levied on their outward journey, 19 June 1822, and the merchants and inhabitants sent petitions for repeal of the coastwise coal duty, 30 Apr. 1823, 24 Feb. 1824, 9 Mar. 1825, and of the house and window taxes, 4 May 1824.6 Anti-slavery petitions from the inhabitants were presented to the Commons, 31 Mar. 1824, 3 Mar. 1826.7 The corporation and inhabitants forwarded an anti-Catholic petition to the Commons, 18 Apr. 1825.8 At the dissolution in June 1826 it was reported that the inhabitants, ‘after suffering much nervous excitement’, were beginning to ‘despair of ever seeing the long-threatened mandamus which is to blow up the present interest ... of the borough’, and that they suspected the plan had been merely a ‘professional experiment for compromising an individual into a share’ of the representation. The general election excited ‘little interest’: Bastard was proposed by Colonel Taylor, Cooper by Holdsworth, and they were ‘declared unanimously elected by a show of hands’.9

The Protestant Dissenters petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Test Acts, 30 May 1827, 22 Feb. 1828.10 In 1828 the corporation sponsored a harbour bill, which proposed to extend the harbour limits by erecting new moorings and laying down buoys, and empower the corporation to levy a toll on shipping. John Henry Seale organized a hostile petition, whose signatories included Smith, the surgeon John Puddicombe, the ship owners George Gibbs and William Follett, and the banker and merchant Robert Harris. On 24 Mar. it was presented to the Commons by Lord Ebrington, Whig Member for Tavistock, who denounced the bill as a ‘barefaced ... corporation job’ involving ‘a very considerable permanent expense’ for the inhabitants, and stated that the petitioners were willing to do the work themselves by voluntary subscription. Bastard and Cooper defended the corporation’s motives before the petition was referred to the committee on the bill and counsel ordered to appear. The bill was eventually withdrawn, 30 June 1828.11 In January 1829, following Cooper’s death, Holdsworth returned himself for the borough, and at the celebration dinner he alluded to the recent dispute, expressing regret that ‘persons could be ... so blind to their own interests as to cut their own throats, for the sake of prejudicing, as they foolishly fancied, a public body’. Seale responded in a public letter in which he accused Holdsworth of using his influence with the duchy of Cornwall, the feudal lord of Dartmouth Water, to thwart his alternative harbour scheme, and said he could not recollect ‘any single public benefit this town has ever derived from [Holdsworth’s] assistance or interest’.12 The corporation and inhabitants petitioned Parliament against Catholic emancipation, 26 Feb., 2 Mar. 1829, and the Members voted accordingly.13 They sent petitions for repeal of the coastwise coal duty to both Houses, 20, 22 May 1829, and to the Commons, 16 Mar. 1830.14

In March 1830, at the instigation of Seale and Puddicombe, a quo warranto writ was obtained in king’s bench against the mayor, Francis Whitney. The purpose of this move was to challenge the legality of a by-law of 1706 used by the common council to elect the mayor from their own number, thereby excluding the freemen from the process, which was claimed to be contrary to the charter of Edward III. It was also contended that the common council had no authority for arrogating to itself the power of electing common councilmen and freemen. According to a sympathetic newspaper, it was hoped that ‘in the event of a successful issue this borough, instead of being the property of an individual, will, as was intended by the charters, belong to the freemen and such of the inhabitants as they shall elect freemen’. In May similar writs were issued against the four previous mayors and several common councilmen and freemen, and on 29 June, when Whitney ‘disclaimed all right to hold the office’ of mayor, a mandamus was issued for the election of a replacement. (The proceedings in the other cases were not completed until later in the year, but they confirmed the illegality only of the mayoral elections.)15 There was a ‘numerous assemblage of the corporate body and inhabitants’ at the guildhall, 19 July, when Edward Brooking and Richard Hingston junior nominated Holdsworth’s cousin Henry as the new mayor; he was declared elected ‘by a show of hands’. Smith, who had earlier presided at a meeting at the Castle Hotel, then demanded his freedom, ‘in conjunction with some other gentlemen’, and ‘tendered a letter to that effect’. He stated that he owned property in the borough, paid scot and lot and was the son of a freeman, and observed that this seemed to be a ‘more constitutional mode of gaining’ his freedom than through the ‘frivolous, vexatious and expensive’ legal measures that had been instituted; his application was finally rejected.16 Seale subsequently issued an address to those who claimed the right to be freemen, in which he denounced the ‘system of usurpation and monopoly which has so long prevailed in this borough’, offered himself as an ‘instrument of emancipating you from your present dependent state’ and emphasized the ‘baneful effect this borough system has produced upon the trade and commerce of our once flourishing port’. He was joined by Sir Henry Willoughby*, whose examination of the charters had convinced him that the inhabitants were entitled to vote, and who believed ‘an opportunity should be given for an impartial and full investigation of their claims’. Like Seale, he was ‘a free and independent man, bound to no party or person’, who recognized the need for ‘rigid economy’ in public expenditure. Seale and Willoughby were accompanied to the guildhall by their ‘legal advisers’, Smith and William Prout. Whitney and Hingston nominated Bastard, the Revs. John Russell and Caleb Rocket introduced Holdsworth, Seale was proposed by the attorney William Hockin and the naval officer W. Redland and Willoughby was sponsored by Puddicombe and Thomas Harris. Bastard declared that no action of his in Parliament ‘could make him ashamed again to meet’ his constituents. Holdsworth repudiated the allegation that he had usurped ancient rights, complained that he was ‘now held up as a mark to be shot at’ and added that ‘if the conduct he had pursued during near half a century was not considered correct ... he was too old to change’. Seale maintained that the ruling on the election petition of 1793, that the right of voting was in the freemen, left open the question of who was entitled to the freedom, and Willoughby demanded that the mayor should receive the votes of those who claimed to be qualified. As polling proceeded, objections were made to many of the corporation voters on the ground that they were ‘illegally chosen’, but by the end of the day 21 votes had been allowed for Bastard and Holdsworth whereas all 53 of those tendered for Seale and Willoughby had been rejected. Willoughby demanded the production of a book marked with the letter G, which he claimed would show that those serving an apprenticeship with a freeman were eligible to vote, but the assessor, Samuel Prideaux, said it had been lost. Next day, many more inhabitants attempted unsuccessfully to vote, until Smith announced that it was ‘useless to continue’ but that enough had been done to enable them to ‘carry the question before another tribunal’. The mayor rejected calls for him either to return Seale and Willoughby or to announce a double return, and Bastard and Holdsworth were declared elected. Bastard briefly returned thanks, and Holdsworth made an animated speech in which he ‘complained loudly of the election squibs with which he had been assailed’ by ‘midnight assassins’. Seale and Willoughby condemned the mayor’s conduct and promised to petition against the result. It was reported that the 21 votes for Bastard and Holdsworth consisted of 11 resident and eight non-resident corporators, ‘besides the two candidates ... themselves’. According to a subsequent return by the town clerk, derived from a pollbook no longer extant, 119 votes were tendered for Seale and Willoughby and rejected, of which 78 were from inhabitants paying scot and lot, 37 from freeholders similarly qualified and four from freemen’s apprentices. Some 300 of Seale and Willoughby’s friends marched from the guildhall to a dinner at the Bethel, ‘accompanied by the deafening shouts of the populace’, and ‘six hogsheads of beer and cider with other refreshments were distributed’.17

On 22 Oct. 1830 about 200 people attended a dinner to celebrate Ebrington’s victory in the county election. A large boat on wheels, flying the tricolour and the Union Jack, was used to draw Ebrington through the streets and the toasts included ‘the people of France and their constitutional king’. Smith was unapologetic about the use of the tricolour, observing that ‘the flag as now waving in France is only misunderstood by the old women in England’.18 Seale and Willoughby’s petition against the Dartmouth return was presented to the Commons, 3 Nov., and the committee met on the 25th. However, the petition was rejected next day without ‘one tittle of evidence’ having been heard, as the committee refused to consider the claim that the reference to ‘freemen’ in the 1793 decision meant inhabitants paying scot and lot. Seale reported that the timing of the committee’s appointment had been ‘very unlucky, for I had not a single friend in town, excepting [George] Fortescue* ... and a phalanx of borough interests came down to oppose us’. Consequently, ‘we had but an indifferent committee, all strangers to me, and chiefly Scotch and Irish’; the chairman, William Douglas, and Sir Richard Vyvyan, had been ‘on the Grampound [sic Penryn] committee two years ago so much against us’. While he could not ‘bring myself to think we had fair play’, Seale believed the ‘decision will be a strong weapon in the hands of the general reformers’.19 He subsequently recommended that a ‘constitutional union’ be formed to campaign for ‘a moderate, but real and efficient reform in the House of Commons, and particularly in our own borough’; whether or not such an organisation was created, the inhabitant householders’ petitioned in this sense, 26 Feb. 1831. The Grey ministry’s reform bill, which proposed to leave Dartmouth’s representation intact while enfranchising the £10 householders, was well received and a petition of support was ‘signed by about 400 ... in the space of eight hours’ and forwarded to the Commons, 19 Mar.20 Both Members nevertheless opposed the bill. Seale presided at a ‘large and very respectable’ public meeting, 26 Apr. 1831, which unanimously voted an address thanking the king for the dissolution and another expressing ‘unqualified approval of the conduct of ministers’; a ‘general illumination’ was held that evening. There was no prospect of opposition to the sitting Members, but the ‘political ... demise of the corrupt holdfast dynasty’ was ironically marked by the ships in the harbour hoisting their flags at half-mast and by the ‘black flags and other emblems of mourning ... exhibited throughout the town’, while the guildhall was ‘crowded by the inhabitants’. Henry Holdsworth and Richard Hingston senior nominated Holdsworth, and the Rev. Robert Holdsworth and Taylor sponsored Bastard; they were ‘submissively returned’ by ‘the nominated freemen, not exceeding 12’. When Holdsworth tried to speak, he was ‘received with loud hisses, groans and hootings’, and complained that ‘they acted like brutes’, but he defended his opposition to the reform bill. Bastard, amid similar interruptions, denounced the ‘revolutionary’ measure. Afterwards, the mayor provided his customary dinner at the Castle for ‘150 of the most respectable inhabitants’, and next day the Members gave a ball and supper, which were ‘attended by the youth, beauty and fashion of the town’.21

A public meeting was held to petition the Lords for the speedy passage of the reintroduced reform bill, 30 Sept. 1831, after the mayor, Hingston junior, had refused to summon it but offered the use of the guildhall. Seale took the chair, the guildhall ‘resounded with enthusiastic acclamations in favour of King William and the bill’ and the petition was agreed without ‘a single dissentient voice’; it was presented, 3 Oct.22 Following the bill’s rejection, one of ‘the most numerous and respectable meetings ever held at Dartmouth’ took place in front of the market house, 14 Oct., when unspecified resolutions were ‘unanimously adopted’ regarding the Lords’ conduct.23 By the criteria adopted in the revised reform bill of December 1831, Dartmouth, which contained 537 houses and paid £639 in assessed taxes, was placed 79th in the list of the smallest English boroughs and was therefore scheduled to lose one of its seats. On 2 Mar. 1832 Willoughby, now Member for Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, proposed Dartmouth’s removal from schedule B on the ground that its assessed taxes were too low as the result of a defalcation by the local collector, who had fled the country.24 He also claimed that a new survey of the borough showed that there were 767 houses, of which 411 were valued at £10. Lord John Russell replied that the fraud had been ‘practised on the inhabitants’, who had been overcharged, rather than the revenue, whose assessment had been correctly paid, and he was confident of the accuracy of the housing return. Willoughby’s motion was defeated by 205-106. When Russell confirmed his decision, 14 Mar., Holdsworth protested against ‘one of the grossest cases that [had] ever occurred’ and said Dartmouth had been ‘treated with great hardship’. Although it was reported in the Tory press that local ‘liberals’ were ‘in great anger’ with the government, a petition to the Lords in favour of the bill was agreed at a meeting chaired by Seale at the Castle, 8 May, and the inhabitants were apparently ‘as enthusiastic as ever’; it was presented, 14 May 1832.25 An address to the king for the reinstatement of Grey’s ministry was reputedly signed by 3-400 people, whereas a counter-address in support of the royal prerogative allegedly received so few signatures that it was not sent. The news of the bill’s passage was celebrated by a large procession through the town and an address by Smith.26

The boundary commissioners reported that Dartmouth’s boundary was ‘irregular and at some points too confined, with reference ... to the present state of the town’ and recommended that it be extended to include the remainder of the parish of Townstall and an ‘intervening portion ... of Stoke Fleming’.27 There were 243 registered electors in 1832. At the general election that year Seale was returned unopposed, and he sat undisturbed as a Liberal until his death in 1844. In 1834 Holdsworth declined to attempt to revive his interest without a promise of some material reward, which the Conservative prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, would not give, and the Municipal Corporations Act ended his family’s domination of local affairs. Sir Henry Seale transferred his support to the Conservatives in 1847, while his nephew, Charles Seale Hayne, campaigned for the Liberals, so that ‘the town divided, with some bitterness, on political lines with Seales leading both sides’. Dartmouth also earned ‘a bad name for corruption’ before its disfranchisement in 1868.28

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 516.
  • 2. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 193; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 485, 488; PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 115; W. Hoskins, Devon, 217-18, 382-5; P. Russell, Dartmouth, 120-9; R. Freeman, Dartmouth, 89-90, 94-95, 100-1.
  • 3. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 516; (1835), xxiii. 475-83; Western Times, 6 Mar., 31 July, 13 Nov. 1830; Wellington mss WP1/1031/10; Freeman, 82-87.
  • 4. LJ, liii. 404.
  • 5. Alfred, 28 Nov., 19 Dec. 1820, 16, 30 Jan., 13, 27 Feb. 1821; CJ, lxxvi. 12; A. Holdsworth, Speech at Dartmouth (Exeter, 1821).
  • 6. CJ, lxxvii. 353; lxxviii. 268; lxxix. 90, 320; lxxx. 180.
  • 7. Ibid. lxxix. 234; lxxxi. 124; Alfred, 21 Feb. 1826.
  • 8. CJ, lxxx. 315.
  • 9. Alfred, 7 June; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 15 June 1826.
  • 10. CJ, lxxxii. 504; lxxxiii. 96.
  • 11. Freeman, 96.
  • 12. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 31 Jan.; Western Times, 14 Feb. 1829.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxiv. 94; LJ, lxi. 81.
  • 14. CJ, lxxxiv. 330; lxxxv. 183; LJ, lxi. 480.
  • 15. Western Times, 6 Mar., 5 June; N. Devon Jnl. 24 June, 8 July 1830; PP (1835), xxiii. 477-8; Freeman, 96-97.
  • 16. Western Times, 24 July; R. Devonport Telegraph, 24 July 1830.
  • 17. Western Times, 24, 31 July, 7 Aug.; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 5 Aug.; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 7 Aug. 1830; PP (1830-1), x. 68.
  • 18. Western Times, 30 Oct.; Devon RO, Seale mss D3889/ 1/14, Smith to Seale, 6 Nov. 1830.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxvi. 13-14, 131-2, 134; Seale mss 1/14, Willoughby to Seale, 16 Nov., Seale to Puddicombe, 30 Nov., to Ebrington, Dec.; Western Times, 4 Dec. 1830.
  • 20. Seale mss 1/14, Seale’s memo. n.d.; CJ, lxxxvi. 309, 406; Alfred, 15 Mar. 1831.
  • 21. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 28 Apr., 5 May; Western Times, 7 May; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 7 May; Alfred, 10 May 1831.
  • 22. R. Devonport Telegraph, 1 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1034.
  • 23. Western Times, 22 Oct. 1831.
  • 24. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 269-82 for documents relating to this case.
  • 25. Flindell’s Western Luminary, 13 Mar.; Besley’s Exeter News, 13 May 1832; LJ, lxiv. 203.
  • 26. Besley’s Exeter News, 20 May, 10 June 1832.
  • 27. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 115-17.
  • 28. Add. 40405, f. 131; Freeman, 99-100, 105-6.