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 £5 householders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 400

Number of voters:

378 in 1831


4,123 (1821); 4,779 (1831)


 Edward Southwell Ruthven152
 Cospatrick Alexander Home, Lord Dunglas159

Main Article

The unincorporated port and county town of Downpatrick, on the south bank of the River Quoil, was reckoned to be in a thriving condition and enjoyed several improvements in this period, including the provision of lighting.1 The decline of the electoral interest of the 21st Baron (de) Clifford of Kings Weston, Gloucestershire, in this relatively open and expensive householder borough, where contests were frequent and lively, had left the representation to be fought over by a number of lesser, mostly local, contenders. These included Edward Southwell Ruthven, a former Member and thrice defeated candidate, who had the backing of the Whig 3rd marquess of Downshire, at least until he sold his estate at Downpatrick in 1818.2 The number of electors, within what was called the ‘demesne of Down’, rose from about 200 at the time of the Union to about 400 by 1818, but according to the seneschal (and returning officer) Alexander Miller, 17 Mar. 1829:

This being a potwalloping borough, the right of voting at elections is vested in the occupiers of houses valued at £5 a year, late Irish currency, and not in freemen or freeholders; and the qualification, as to the value of the house, resting solely on the oath of the person registering, it is a notorious fact that the great majority of the increase of voters since 1806 is owing to persons having registered out of houses of from £2 to £4 yearly value, for the most venal purposes. There are at present upwards of 500 registered to vote, and there has been little or no increase in the number of houses of this low description since 1806 to justify such an increase of voters.3

In 1830 John Craig, clerk of the peace for Down, supplied a parliamentary return giving 2,180 electors, a figure repeated in error elsewhere; but he observed that, because of the outdated registers, ‘not more than one fourth of the above number could vote’.4

Downpatrick was again contested at the general election of 1820, when the 2nd earl of Annesley’s son Lord Glerawly resigned in the midst of divorce proceedings in France.5 The Tory John Waring Maxwell of nearby Finnebrogue offered, as did Ruthven, and the Belfast radical Thomas Heron of Killyleagh withdrew in favour of the latter.6 Following a taxing canvass against an array of mostly Whig gentry, including Colonel Mathew Forde* of Seaforde, who was nearly substituted for Ruthven, Waring Maxwell was elected after a two-day poll and given a rapturous chairing.7 He had a majority of 38 of the 342 who voted, his opponent resigning before the completion of the polling of the 424 electors on the register, to which 93 householders were added that year.8 His brother-in-law, David Guardi Ker of Portavo, who could have stood (but came in for Athlone in June), recorded that

I should never have forgiven myself if I had, as I think it is the only thing for him. In my own cause I might not have shown half the same zeal and exertion, and the evidence of the interest we possess is equally manifest. The time had come when it was expedient to evince it. Maxwell with common judgement will have an easy card to play hereafter, and I think the county will own that he is in his natural position.9

One inhabitant, John Hunter, applied to Waring Maxwell for patronage, pleading that he had ‘done everything in my power for you at your election’ and explaining that he had put himself at a distance for fear ‘of being sworn against if the petition goes against your honour’.10 No petition materialized.

The radical portion of the town was probably behind the illumination in honour of Queen Caroline’s acquittal in November 1820, but a loyal address to the king was got up early the following year.11 The Downpatrick Orange Lodge, which was determined to mark the 12th of July ceremony in 1823, thanked Waring Maxwell that year for his support for their cause in Parliament.12 He brought up the town’s anti-Catholic petition, 9 Mar. 1825, while a favourable one had been presented by the county Member Lord Arthur Hill, Downshire’s brother, on the 3rd.13 At the county meeting on the corn laws held in the borough on 27 Apr. that year Lord Annesley (as Glerawly had become) complained that the proceedings were dominated by the potwallopers of Downpatrick, which occasioned unruly scenes; one of them expostulated that ‘his pot never boiled at his Lordship’s expense’.14 The sitting Member offered again and made extensive preparations at the general election of 1826, when de Clifford told him that he had resolved not to interfere, Forde disclaimed any interest in the borough and nothing came of an expected independent candidacy.15 Waring Maxwell, who was warned by Craig, his legal adviser, that ‘money matters’ were ‘on no account to be spoken of by you’ for fear of a petition, was returned unopposed in the first uncontested election since the 1801 by-election. As one newspaper put it, ‘corruption has hereby defeated its own purpose’, as it was supposed that any challenger was dissuaded from standing by the excessive bribe that would have been demanded by the 513 registered electors.16

The success of Waring Maxwell, who again voted against Catholic relief in 1827, was taken as a good omen for the Protestant cause, and on 14 Nov. 1828 he chaired the meeting in Downpatrick which established a Brunswick Club under his presidency.17 The Protestant inhabitants’ hostile petition was presented to the Lords by Lord Farnham, 20 Mar., and to the Commons by his nephew Henry Maxwell, Member for Cavan, 30 Mar. 1829.18 That month the former Member John Croker*, secretary to the admiralty, advised Peel, the home secretary, on the Irish franchise, noting that the ‘frauds and perjuries in the towns (not corporate) where the election is in inhabitants registering their houses as of £5 value are more enormous, though less extensive, than those of the 40s. freeholders’. He also reported, from his own knowledge, that in Downpatrick and its similar neighbour Newry, ‘the meanest class of Papists are in the majority’.19 They were certainly in evidence on 2 Apr. 1829 when Ruthven hosted a dinner of the ‘friends of civil and religious liberty’ in honour of Daniel O’Connell*, who was attending the assizes.20

They and leading Protestant inhabitants, such as the former tanner and radical diarist Aynsworth Pilson, who was later the proprietor of the Downpatrick Recorder, were the principal forces behind the Down Independent Club, which was established in the autumn of 1829. According to an anonymous source, Ruthven relieved himself of a possible rival in Downpatrick by supporting Forde’s attempt to regain his seat for Down: he ‘foresaw that, if he could involve the colonel in a contest for the county, he might in the mean time, slip in for the borough, which the colonel’s popularity and the length of his purse would otherwise render a hopeless cause’.21 At the dissolution in mid-1830, Waring Maxwell, who had latterly been absent from Parliament through illness but intended to stand again, was informed by Ruthven, on requesting his vote, that ‘I will be very candid in saying that I mean to attempt the attainment of the same object in which you desire my concurrence for yourself’. No doubt thinking that discretion was preferable to a contest, Waring Maxwell withdrew, pleading poor health; he felt it necessary to apologize to de Clifford, who, however, repeated that he took no interest in the representation of the borough.22 Although there was a rumour that Croker might offer after losing his seat for Dublin University, Ruthven was returned unopposed. Curiously, for one of his radical stamp, he was listed as ‘pro-government’ in Pierce Mahony’s† analysis of the Irish elections.23 Forde was defeated in the county contest, but the friends of independence gave him a dinner in Downpatrick, 16 Sept. 1830.24

The Methodists’ anti-slavery petition was presented by Bateson, Member for County Londonderry, 25 Nov. 1830, and the merchants and inhabitants’ petition for improving Downpatrick harbour was brought up by Ruthven, 24 Mar. 1831.25 An address to the lord lieutenant against repeal of the Union was drawn up in February, and at the county meeting on this subject the following month the future of the £5 householder franchise under the Grey ministry’s reform proposals was raised as a popular rallying cry.26 Reform petitions were said to be in preparation in the borough, though none was apparently presented, and the pro-reform Ruthven was thought to be secure at the general election that spring, when the town again played a significant role in the county contest. It was rumoured that Forde’s brother Francis, or John, son of Andrew Nugent of Portaferry House, might start for the borough, but in the end the Tory candidate, who played on the fact that the potwallopers were expected soon to be disfranchised, was the diplomat Lord Dunglas, son of the 10th earl of Home of The Hirsel, Berwickshire.27 The Irish secretary feared that Ruthven would ‘be beaten, as he requires a much larger aid than we can afford him’, but he finished a two-day poll 60 votes ahead of Dunglas, who was deemed by the Tory leader, the duke of Wellington, to have had insufficient funds.28

The boundary commissioners, who recommended that the borough’s limits remain unchanged, reported that year that there were 493 electors and estimated that under the Reform Act there would be 221 £10 voters plus about 300 reserved rights £5 householders.29 There were in fact 517 registered voters at the general election of 1832, when one commentator noted that ‘this borough is quite open and any supporter of government with £500 might come in supported as he would be by the interest of the de Clifford [and other] property’.30 The Repealer Ruthven transferred to Dublin and Waring Maxwell was returned unopposed as a Conservative, after a horrified Downshire had persuaded one of his younger brothers to withdraw on account of the likely expense of a contest.31 Nothing came of the expectation that the seat would be awarded to John Russell, Member for Kinsale on the interest of de Clifford, on whose death the following year Russell’s wife succeeded to that barony.32 But after Waring Maxwell’s retirement in 1834, the old de Clifford interest, long since dissipated among the family’s agents, appears to have been secured by Ker and his sons, who (despite a Liberal challenge in 1837 and a six-year interlude in the 1850s) represented Downpatrick as Conservatives from 1835 to 1867.

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xliii. 41; (1835), xxviii. 353-6; S. Lewis, Top. Dict. of Ireland (1837), i. 492-5.
  • 2. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), vi. 229; Hist. Irish Parl. ii. 221-2; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 644-6; W.A. Maguire, Downshire Estates in Ireland, 14, 15.
  • 3. PP (1829), xxii. 9; (1835), xxviii. 353.
  • 4. Ibid. (1830), xxxi. 324; Key to Both Houses (1832), 321.
  • 5. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 72.
  • 6. Belfast News Letter, 28 Mar. 1820, 21 Dec. 1832.
  • 7. PRO NI, Ker mss D2651/3/34, 36; PRO NI, Pilson diary D365/3, 28 Mar. 1820; Add. 40298, f. 13.
  • 8. PP (1824), xxi. 12, 13.
  • 9. Ker mss 3/38.
  • 10. PRO NI, Perceval-Maxwell mss D3244/G/1/8.
  • 11. Belfast Commercial Chron. 25 Nov. 1820; Belfast News Letter, 6 Mar. 1821.
  • 12. Perceval-Maxwell mss G/1/26, 27.
  • 13. CJ, lxxx. 157, 180; The Times, 4, 10 Mar. 1825.
  • 14. Belfast News Letter, 29 Apr. 1825; Perceval-Maxwell mss E/7/9.
  • 15. Belfast Commercial Chron. 3, 7 June 1826; Perceval-Maxwell mss F/2/67; G/1/32-36.
  • 16. Perceval-Maxwell mss G/1/35; Pilson diary 3, 14 June; Belfast Commercial Chron. 17 June 1826.
  • 17. Perceval-Maxwell mss G/1/38; Belfast News Letter, 18 Nov. 1828.
  • 18. LJ, lxi. 237; CJ, lxxxiv. 182.
  • 19. Add. 40320, f. 110.
  • 20. Perceval-Maxwell mss E/7/33, 34; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1546; Northern Whig, 23 Apr. 1829.
  • 21. Narrative of Down Election (1830), 11, 12.
  • 22. Perceval-Maxwell mss G/1/65-70; Belfast News Letter, 16, 20, 23 July 1830.
  • 23. Pilson diary 3, 7 Aug.; Newry Commercial Telegraph, 10 Aug. 1830; TNA HO100/235, f. 100.
  • 24. Newry Commercial Telegraph, 21 Sept. 1830.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxvi. 133, 431.
  • 26. Belfast News Letter, 8 Feb.; Newry Commercial Telegraph, 18 Mar. 1831; Perceval-Maxwell mss E/7/54.
  • 27. Newry Commercial Telegraph, 5 Apr., 3, 6 May; Belfast News Letter, 3, 6 May 1831; PRO NI, Nugent mss D552/A/9/11/1, 2.
  • 28. Grey mss, Smith Stanley to Grey, 9 May; Pilson diary 3, 9 May; Newry Commercial Telegraph, 10, 13 May; Belfast News Letter, 10, 13 May 1831; Wellington mss WP1/1184/20.
  • 29. PP (1831-2), xliii. 41-44.
  • 30. Derby mss 920 Der (14) 125/4, Barrington to Smith Stanley, 16 Nov. 1832.
  • 31. Newry Examiner, 18 Dec. 1832; Wellington mss WP1/1239/27; Letters of Great Irish Landlord ed. W.A. Maguire, 162.
  • 32. Newry Examiner, 29 Sept. 1832.