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 and 40s. freeholders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 650, rising to 936 in 18311

Number of voters:

664 in 1822


18,145 (1821); 17,365 (1831)


22 Mar. 1820HENRY METCALFE323
 Thomas Wallace II135
9 Mar. 1822WILLIAM MEADE SMYTHE vice Metcalfe, deceased357
 Robert Pentland307
17 June 1826PETER VAN HOMRIGH338
 William Meade Smythe126
 Thomas Wallace II24
13 Aug. 1830JOHN HENRY NORTH373
 Maurice Daniel O'Connell268
13 May 1831JOHN HENRY NORTH355
 Thomas Wallace II285
20 Oct. 1831THOMAS WALLACE II vice North, deceased 

Main Article

Drogheda, a city and county of itself straddling the Boyne about four miles from the sea, had a declining linen industry, and though possessed of ‘good streets and excellent houses’ in ‘its interior’, was surrounded by ‘rows of the most wretched mud cabins’ extending ‘for at least a mile from the town’, which in their ‘filth’ and the ‘ragged appearance of the inmates’ were ‘as miserable a suburb as any in Ireland’. The Catholic inhabitants, who comprised five-sixths of its shrinking population, continued to agitate unsuccessfully for admission to the self-elected Protestant corporation of two sheriffs and 24 aldermen (one of whom was the mayor) and a common council of ex-sheriffs and 14 ‘representatives’ elected by the guilds, with which there was ‘very great dissatisfaction’, especially with the way in which they ‘conducted the lettings of their property’. The municipal corporations commissioners discovered that leases on 575 corporation houses, many on highly ‘lucrative’ terms, were held by 13 leading Protestant families with ‘considerable influence in the assembly’, among them the Smythes, Meade Ogles, Metcalfes, Hardmans and Van Homrighs, who for many years had monopolized the principal offices.2

Between January 1821 and January 1829 165 freemen were admitted ‘on petition to the assembly’, 65 by birth or seven years’ servitude, for which they were charged stamp duty of £1, and 97 by ‘special favour’ at a cost of £3. (Robert Peel*, the former Irish secretary, had been enrolled in 1815.) The admission of non-residents, who by 1830 accounted for 427 (73 per cent) of the 581 freemen, gave the corporation considerable electoral influence, albeit at the expense of bringing voters to the poll, but a long-standing rivalry between the Ogles and Hardmans, the former usually in alliance with the Smythes and the latter supported by John Foster of Collon, Member for Louth, compromised its control of the representation.3 This, and the fact that the electorate also included a widely fluctuating number of 40s. freeholders ‘of the lowest description of Irish peasantry’, of whom the ‘real number’ was said to be 370 in 1830 (the raising of the Irish freehold franchise qualification in 1829 did not apply to county boroughs), meant that Drogheda was ‘the scene of extraordinary electioneering events’. In 1828 Anthony Marmion, a local Catholic agitator, noted that ‘a system of bribery has prevailed there more shameful and more general than that for which Penryn and East Retford have been disfranchised’ and that a dissolution was ‘always hailed with delight by the freeholders’.4 In a similar vein the municipal commissioners reported:

The venality and corruption [of Drogheda] was notorious. Committees of the freemen were organized to get up contests, for the purpose of having an opportunity of selling their votes. Members of the assembly were agents in distributing and promising bribes, and members of the corporation, in a decent rank of life, were in the habit of taking money for their votes.5

At the 1820 general election the sitting Member Henry Meade Ogle retired. Henry Metcalfe, a leading alderman and former mayor, came forward as his successor with the combined support of the Ogle-Smythe and Foster-Hardman factions, whose alliance had defeated a pro-Catholic challenger, Thomas Wallace of Dublin, in 1818. Wallace, who was said to ‘be almost at the bottom of his purse’ after an unsuccessful petition, resolved ‘not to risk a contest on this occasion’, telling the Catholic freeholders that with ‘above 60’ of their number ‘incapable of voting, having been registered so late as October’, and the ‘recent state of the registries’ displaying ‘a perfect equality between the two parties, the number of each varying between 300 and 306’, they should ‘await a future occasion for putting forward’ their ‘whole force’. At the nomination, however, in ‘a very extraordinary circumstance’, Wallace was proposed ‘without his consent’ and ‘against his wishes’, and a poll was demanded by the ‘freeholders and a portion of the freemen’, whose ensuing struggle ‘against the congregate weight of corporate influence’ was lauded by the Irish Catholic press as ‘without parallel in the annals of our country’. At the end of the first day Metcalfe and Wallace had secured 35 and 34 votes respectively, but thereafter Metcalfe’s lead began to widen. On the fifth day, in an allegedly illegal act, the sheriffs, ‘notwithstanding that nearly 250 electors remained unpolled, closed the books, and declared Metcalfe duly elected’, shortly after receiving 35 votes in his favour.6 Metcalfe, who was supported by 71 per cent of the 458 who polled, received votes from 243 (97 per cent) of the 251 freemen and 80 (39 per cent) of the 207 freeholders. Wallace secured the support of only eight (three per cent) of the freemen, but 127 (62 per cent) of the freeholders.7 A petition against Metcalfe’s return alleging ‘open, shameless and profligate bribery’ and ‘gross partiality and illegal conduct on the part of the returning officer’ was started, for which ‘a sum of above £500’ was collected from the ‘independent electors’, who held a dinner for Wallace at the Linen Hall, 3 Apr. It was presented to the Commons in the names of six electors, 8 May, but lapsed, 9 June 1820.8 In the House Metcalfe supported the Liverpool ministry and Catholic relief. A loyal address was presented by Drogheda corporation to the king on his visit to Ireland in September 1821.9

Metcalfe’s death in February 1822 created a vacancy, for which Ogle’s nephew William Meade Smythe quickly came forward, stressing his support for Catholic emancipation. In the belief that Smythe had ‘no heart to spend a pound’ and that ‘no candidate was likely to offer himself of such weight and influence as to produce an arduous or expensive contest’, the talented Irish barrister John Henry North* was persuaded by his wife and her impetuous sister Harriet, Countess de Salis, to start on the interest of their uncle Foster, now Lord Oriel. It soon emerged, however, that Foster’s son and heir Thomas Skeffington* had agreed to back Robert Pentland, the son of a prominent local attorney, who also declared, promising to support emancipation. The countess urged her uncle to consider ‘the strength and credit of our family’ and to advise ‘Pentland’s Boy’ to resign in favour of North, but Oriel admonished her for her ‘precipitancy’ and informed North of his ‘regret that Harriet de Salis has suffered her zeal to overrun her judgement’, placing the family in a ‘most distressing situation’. North obligingly withdrew, writing to Oriel ‘that it would of course be injudicious and improper in every respect to oppose a candidate relying on your interest’, but the countess charged Pentland with ‘treachery’ and refused to ‘degrade’ herself by supporting him, condemning ‘the disgrace of the situation to which Thomas [Skeffington] reduces his friends by asking them to vote for "the scum of the earth"’.10 The ensuing contest, as she informed her brother John Leslie Foster*, was not ‘Foster against Smythe’ but between

the independent gentlemen and freemen who are rallying round Smythe, as their only hope, though an unpopular person, to save them from the disgrace of being a second time bought by an attorney, and the lowest venial class joined to such of Colonel Skeffington’s friends who are really dependent on him.11

Smythe, who was returned on the fourth day with 54 per cent of the 664 votes cast, was supported by 206 (67 per cent) of the 307 freemen and 151 (42 per cent) of the 357 freeholders. Pentland received votes from 101 (33 per cent) of the freemen and 206 (58 per cent) of the freeholders. Non-residents accounted for 165 (54 per cent) of the freemen who voted.12 Marmion later claimed that the contest had ‘cost each of the candidates £10,000’ and that ‘some votes were purchased as high as £40 and £50’.13

Smythe gave general support to the Liverpool ministry and voted for Catholic claims, in support of which a petition reached the Lords, 9 Mar. 1826.14 He presented Drogheda petitions against the Irish window tax, 1 May 1822, repeal of fish curers’ bounties, 3 May, and the county assessments, 3 June 1824.15 A petition from the freeholders complaining that the corporation had trespassed on ‘public property by assuming possession’ of common land and calling for its restitution reached the Commons, 14 June 1824. Following the failure of a campaign by the city’s Catholics to have Sir Edward Bellew, a prominent Catholic Louth landowner, admitted as a freeman in 1823, a petition for restoration of their ‘ancient privileges’ and repeal of the Irish Corporation Act was presented, 10 Mar. 1824. Another from 2,000 ‘respectable inhabitants’ attacking the corporation’s ‘evasion’ of the ‘existing laws’ and calling for Catholic emancipation was presented by Thomas Spring Rice, 15 Apr. 1824, and endorsed by Sir John Newport and Joseph Hume. One calling for the ‘corporate franchise’ to be restricted to ‘residents or apprentices of seven years’ standing’ and for fines of £5,000 to be imposed on ‘any corporate body refusing to admit any person duly qualified’ was presented, 7 Mar. 1825.16 No action was forthcoming.

At the 1826 general election Smythe offered again on the ‘same principles’. Rumours that Sir Henry Meredith of Carlandstown, county Meath, would come forward on behalf of the ‘free independent electors’ proved groundless, and although an invitation from 370 freeholders and non-resident freemen was sent to Wallace, the press predicted that he would prefer attending the county Waterford election, where he was agent to Lord George Beresford*, and that there would be no opposition. On the day of nomination, however, Wallace, accompanied by members of the prominent pro-Catholic Grattan family, ‘came down fully prepared with agents, poll books, etc.’ He was joined by Drogheda’s recorder Peter Van Homrigh who, having previously declined the solicitations of a ‘large body of freeholders’, now offered citing his ‘liberal’ principles and support for emancipation. Finding that many freeholders were already engaged to Van Homrigh, Wallace withdrew. In a bitter exchange on the hustings (and later in the press), Smythe accused Van Homrigh of having ‘declined giving me any trouble’, saying that ‘if the representation was offered to him, from his time of life he would decline it’. A five-day contest ensued, which according to Foster’s nephew the Rev. William Foster was ‘most wicked’, Van Homrigh having ‘found some money’ and ‘opened public houses’.17 At the end of the first day Van Homrigh was 21 votes behind his opponent’s 56, but thereafter he acquired a substantial lead. On the fourth day, Wallace unexpectedly reappeared and entered the field, claiming that both candidates had committed acts of bribery and were thereby ‘incapacitated’. Smythe promptly retired, complaining of ‘not having received that support which he had a right to expect from the Catholic voters’, leaving Van Homrigh to engage in a ‘heated and inflamed’ exchange with Wallace, whom he accused of staging a ‘vexatious’ opposition. After Wallace had polled the 24 non-resident freemen he had ‘brought with him from Dublin’ the booths were closed.18 Van Homrigh, who was supported by 69 per cent of the 488 who voted, received votes from 279 (87 per cent) of the 320 freeholders, and 59 (35 per cent) of the 168 freemen. Smythe, who was backed by 26 per cent, obtained votes from only 41 freeholders (13 per cent), but 85 freemen (51 per cent). Wallace, who secured just 24 votes (five per cent of the total), all of them from freemen, was expected to petition, but none was forthcoming. During the contest Oriel had been informed that ‘no money’ was ‘going for votes’, and Van Homrigh later assured the House, 28 May 1827, that he ‘owed his election to the unbought, unsolicited suffrages of the town’.19 According to Marmion, however, many electors were ‘shut up and held over for a market until near the close of the poll’.20

In the House Van Homrigh was a supporter of the Wellington government and Catholic claims, in favour of which petitions from the Catholic inhabitants reached the Commons, 1 Mar. 1827, 5 May 1828, 3, 11 Mar. 1829, and the Lords, 16 Mar. 1827, 23 Feb., 6, 10 Mar. 1829. Hostile petitions from the Protestants were presented to the Commons, 2 Mar. 1827, 26 Feb. 1829, and from the corporation to the Lords, 6 Mar. 1827, 20 Mar. 1829, the latter urging ministers to ‘deprive the Roman Catholic priesthood of the control which they now exercise in the returns of Members’.21 Petitions from the Catholics reached the Commons for repeal of the Irish Vestries Act, 8 Mar. 1827, and the Test Acts, 21 Mar. 1828, against which another was presented to the Lords, 20 Mar. 1828.22 Van Homrigh presented petitions for employment of the town’s distressed poor, 14 Mar. 1827, and against Irish grand jury presentments, 27 June 1828.23 Further petitions for reform of the corporation reached the Commons, 8 Mar. 1827, and for an investigation of its ‘immense trust estate’ and the ‘utmost distress’ of ‘8,000 of its 16,000 inhabitants’, 1 Mar. 1830.24

At the 1830 general election Van Homrigh, who had encountered financial difficulties, retired without explanation. (He later begged the Grey ministry’s home secretary Lord Melbourne to assist with ‘debts which I am unable to pay’.)25 A local candidate, George Smith of Greenhills, started, claiming a ‘pledge of support’ from the ‘body corporate in full assembly’, but he declined on hearing that Maurice O’Connell*, the eldest son of Daniel O’Connell*, had declared as a supporter of parliamentary reform and the ballot, and that Wallace was again rumoured. Shortly before the election, in what the outgoing Irish secretary Lord Francis Leveson Gower described as his ‘last act’, arrangements were made for North, who had vacated Milborne Port, to stand with the united backing of the corporation, in the expectation that he would quit the field at Dublin University, where he was proving a nuisance, and afford ‘some assistance in keeping out of a most important representation a most determined enemy of the present government’. As expected Wallace came to the nomination, but on ‘finding the field preoccupied’ he gave up. Pressed on the hustings, North denied that his opposition to the Galway franchise bill was inconsistent with his support for Catholic claims or that he was a ‘candidate of the corporation’, but he was taunted for his recent appointment as a judge of the Irish admiralty court by Maurice O’Connell, who contended that it disqualified him from standing. On behalf of the Catholic freeholders Andrew Carew O’Dwyer, who was described as an ‘ex-candidate’ (no record of his standing has been found), then attempted ‘to argue against the eligibility of the non-resident freemen’, but the assessor ruled against him. A five-day contest ensued during which North led throughout.26

North, who was supported by 58 per cent of the 641 who polled, received votes from 268 (91 per cent) of the 295 freemen, and five (two per cent) of the 246 freeholders. O’Connell was backed by 27 freemen (nine per cent) and 241 freeholders (98 per cent). At the declaration North freely acknowledged that he owed his victory (which was rumoured to have cost between £5,000 and £10,000) entirely to the non-resident freemen, who had come ‘from the remotest parts of Ireland’, but he professed confidence of surviving the petition which O’Connell, with the assistance of O’Dwyer, promised to bring against the return, alleging that North was ‘disqualified’ on account of his judge’s salary and his wife’s pension from the crown, and that large numbers of non-resident freemen had been improperly polled. It was presented, 16 Nov. 1830, but the committee found in North’s favour, 3 Mar. 1831. Another petition from the Catholic freeholders, asserting that many of North’s non-resident freemen had been admitted without payment of stamp duties and ‘solely on account of their being notorious as violent political partisans, professing what is generally termed Orange or Anti-Catholic principles’, was presented, 8 Nov. 1830, but went no further.27

North opposed the incoming Grey ministry and their plan of parliamentary reform, for which a Drogheda meeting was held ‘to rally round the king and the bill’, 17 Mar., and a favourable petition reached the Commons, 29 Mar. 1831. A hostile one from the corporation was presented to the Lords, 21 Apr. 1831.28 At the dissolution that month it was widely rumoured that North would vacate on account of his ‘unpopularity’, but the Tory party managers had great ‘anxieties about Ireland’ and, as Charles Arbuthnot* informed Lord Farnham in a ‘most confidential’ letter, 4 May, out of the ‘funds at our disposal’ they ‘promised’ what ‘would be sufficient for Drogheda’. North duly offered again, condemning the ‘rash and dangerous innovation’ of ‘intemperate’ reform, and reminding the corporation of the ‘decided part’ he had taken in opposing the bill ‘as it affected your chartered rights’ and ‘ancient privileges’.29 Meanwhile the Irish viceroy Lord Anglesey informed Grey that by backing the candidature of Wallace, who had pronounced himself ‘unqualifiedly favourable to reform’, the Irish government were ‘greatly in hopes of being able to spring a mine to blow up North for Drogheda’, though ‘that place cannot be saved without money’. ‘North’s purse was full’, he reported, but ‘he is emptying it fast’.30 (Arbuthnot later told Wellington that North was given £1,000 ‘over and above the £2,000 he originally had’.)31 A ‘close and hot contest’ of eight days ensued, during which Drogheda was described to Grey as one of ‘our dark points’ and it was complained that ‘a little money would make a prodigious difference’.32 North’s return with the prominent assistance of the ‘patriotic Protestant clergy’ prompted widespread outrage that the ‘"bull-frog"’ had ‘again been foisted upon the inhabitants by the rotten corporation, and its non-resident freemen’. (A home office breakdown of the voting, which does not tally with the final result, shows that North received votes from 305 (84 per cent) of the 364 freemen, 195 of whom were non-resident, and just ten (four per cent) of the 235 freeholders who polled, while Wallace was backed by 16 per cent and 96 per cent respectively.)33 Wallace, on whom Daniel O’Connell had ‘relied for Drogheda’, alleged that freemen had been ‘brought from England and Wales, the Isle of Man, and every other part to outvote the resident voters’, and threatened to petition, citing the ‘large number of independent freeholders’ who had been annulled by ‘mere technical omissions in the registries’.34 None, however, was forthcoming before North, who continued to oppose the reform bill, died unexpectedly in September 1831.

At the ensuing by-election the anti-reformer William Ormsby Gore, former Member for Caernarvon Boroughs, was spoken of as a challenger to Wallace, who, having obtained Anglesey’s ‘best wishes’ and registered a ‘considerable number’ of new supporters, offered again as ‘a radical reformer’.35 Ormsby Gore’s early withdrawal appeared to confirm rumours that Wallace had reached an understanding with some of his erstwhile enemies on the corporation and that he would be returned without opposition, but at the nomination Pentland, who had declined an invitation to stand, was proposed by a freeholder without his consent. An abortive poll followed, from which Pentland soon resigned, much to the chagrin of his supporters, who gave ‘a tally of voters’ and a protest against the return to the sheriffs. Wallace, however, was declared elected ‘without opposition’, prompting the Irish secretary Smith Stanley to comment that he had been returned ‘by mere bragging’, as ‘he had not a shilling and would not have stood a poll’.36 A petition against the return, complaining that the sheriffs had declined to grant a poll and had declared Wallace returned ‘in a hasty and irregular manner’ was presented, 20 Oct. 1831, but lapsed, 17 Jan. 1832.37

Wallace, who gave steady support to the reform bills, presented Drogheda petitions for an extension of the vote to Irish £10 leaseholders and against Irish grand jury assessments and tithes, 26 Jan. 1832. Another anti-tithe petition reached the Lords, 15 Mar. 1832.38 The boundary commissioners did not propose ‘any curtailment’ to Drogheda’s ‘existing limits’ which, because the freeholders did not possess additional votes for the counties of Meath or Louth, were held to be ‘essentially connected with the elective franchise’. By the Irish Reform Act they estimated that ‘about 800’ voters would qualify as £10 householders (including 130 resident freemen and 50 freeholders), that a further 20 would qualify as £20 leaseholders and that with the remaining 320 freeholders and 140 resident freemen there would be a reformed constituency of about 1,280. In the event, however, the registered electorate numbered 560, of whom 261 were £10 householders, 16 leaseholders, 130 freeholders, and 153 freemen (roughly 247 were disfranchised for residence beyond seven miles).39 Less than half (249) polled at the 1832 general election, when Wallace retired after refusing to give a pledge for repeal of the union, and O’Dwyer was returned as a Repealer in a token contest with a Conservative. O’Dwyer was elected unopposed in 1835, but unseated for ‘want of qualification’, and again on petition following his re-election later that year. The corporation remained exclusive in character, with only two Catholics being admitted after emancipation, but after 1832 there was said to be ‘little or no influence’ in the constituency.40

Author: Philip Salmon


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xliii. 46. A figure for 1830 of ‘about 1,143’ was based upon an inaccurate return of freeholders (PP (1830), xxxi. 324).
  • 2. H. Inglis, Ireland in 1834, ii. 328; A. Malcomson, John Foster, 162, 163, 189; PP (1831-2), xliii. 45; (1835), xxviii. 363-446.
  • 3. PP (1829), xxii. 255-65; J. D’Alton, Hist. Drogheda, i. 260.
  • 4. PP (1831-2), xliii. 46; Malcomson, 186, 187; Drogheda Jnl. 27 Sept. 1828.
  • 5. PP (1835), xxviii. 382.
  • 6. Belfast News Letter, 8, 18 Feb., 3, 21 Mar.; Dublin Evening Post, 2, 14, 18, 28 Mar. 1820; Malcomson, 183.
  • 7. PP (1829), xxii. 9.
  • 8. CJ, lxxv. 159, 162, 257, 293; Dublin Evening Post, 11 Apr., 15 June 1820.
  • 9. Dublin Evening Post, 8 Sept. 1821.
  • 10. PRO NI, Foster mss D562/4616-21; Dublin Evening Post, 2, 5 Mar. 1822.
  • 11. Foster mss 4621.
  • 12. Drogheda Jnl. 14 Aug. 1830. An alternative but suspect breakdown can be found in PP (1829), xxii. 9.
  • 13. Drogheda Jnl. 27 Sept. 1828.
  • 14. LJ, lviii. 95.
  • 15. The Times, 2 May 1822, 4 May, 4 June 1824; CJ, lxxvii. 222; lxxix. 313, 452.
  • 16. Malcomson, 163; CJ, lxxix. 146, 304, 490; lxxx. 168.
  • 17. PRO NI, Foster-Massereene mss D207/73/51.
  • 18. Dublin Evening Post, 6, 8, 10, 17, 22 June; Drogheda Jnl. 7, 10, 14, 17, 21 June 1826.
  • 19. PP (1829), xxii. 9; Dublin Evening Post, 22 June 1826; Foster-Massereene mss 73/51.
  • 20. Drogheda Jnl. 27 Sept. 1828.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxii. 245, 256; lxxxiii. 313; lxxxiv. 85, 98, 124; LJ, lix. 135, 176; lxi. 70, 135, 157, 232, 233.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxii. 295; lxxxiii. 189; LJ, lx. 125.
  • 23. The Times, 15 Mar. 1827; CJ, lxxxii. 315; lxxxiii. 483.
  • 24. CJ, lxxxii. 295; lxxxv. 114.
  • 25. Herts. Archives, Panshanger mss, Van Homrigh to Melbourne, 3 Dec. 1830.
  • 26. Drogheda Jnl. 27, 31 July, 3, 7 Aug.; Dublin Evening Post, 31 July, 7 Aug. 1830; NAI, Leveson Gower letterbks. M 738; Wellington mss WP1/1128/2; 1133/4; Add. 40334, f. 323; 40338, f. 264.
  • 27. Drogheda Jnl. 14, 17 Aug. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 44, 90, 132, 328, 336.
  • 28. Drogheda Jnl. 19 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 456; LJ, lxiii. 506.
  • 29. Drogheda Jnl. 30 Apr.; Dublin Evening Post, 3 May 1831; NLI, Farnham mss 18606 (1).
  • 30. PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/28c/105, 106.
  • 31. PRO NI, Wellington mss T2627/3/2/296.
  • 32. Anglesey mss 28C/11, 12; Grey mss, Smith Stanley to Grey, 9 May 1831.
  • 33. PP (1831-2), xliii. 46.
  • 34. Drogheda Jnl. 14 May; Dublin Evening Post, 5, 10, 14 May 1831; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1802.
  • 35. PRO NI, Chilham Foster mss T2519/4/2130; Anglesey mss 33D/76; PP (1831-2), xliii. 46.
  • 36. Drogheda Jnl. 15, 22 Oct.; Grey mss, Smith Stanley to Grey, 23 Oct. 1831.
  • 37. CJ, lxxxvii. 9, 33.
  • 38. Ibid. 53; LJ, lxiv. 99.
  • 39. PP (1831-2), xliii. 47; (1833), xxvii. 298; (1835), xxviii. 371; Malcomson, 187.
  • 40. PP (1833), xxvii. 298; xxxiv. 149; C.R. Dod, Electoral Facts (1853), 92.