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 freeholders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 1,300 in 18311

Number of voters:

910 in 1831


23,479 (1821); 28,242 (1831)


 Sir William Templer Pole, bt.278
9 Feb. 1826SAMUEL TREHAWKE KEKEWICH vice Courtenay, appointed to office 
 Edward Divett379

Main Article

Exeter, a cathedral city and port, situated on the eastern bank of the Exe, about nine miles from the English Channel, had lost its position as a leading producer and exporter of serge and other coarse woollen cloths by the late eighteenth century. It continued to provide an outlet for woollen goods manufactured in Devon and served as the chief distribution centre for the general trade of the region. There was also ‘a large demand for the various articles manufactured in the city’, including iron, brass, leather, paper, beer and milled corn. However, the industrial revolution largely passed Exeter by, and it depended on supplying goods and services to ‘a countryside of dwindling economic significance’ and was ‘relapsing into the status of a large market town’. It owed its recent prosperity to the growth of the professional classes, particularly doctors, and to the fact that it had become a ‘centre of fashion and gaiety’ for the nobility and gentry and an attractive place of residence for invalids and the retired. From the 1770s until the 1830s there was a ‘brief flowering of Georgian and Regency building’, to accommodate this ‘numerous and genteel society’. Construction work became a major source of employment, and this was further stimulated during the 1820s when the corporation spent over £100,000 on extending and deepening the Grand Western Canal and building a new basin, in an unsuccessful attempt to revive trade.2

The city encompassed 21 whole parishes. Local power was exercised by the corporation or ‘chamber’, a self-electing body consisting of a mayor, eight aldermen, chosen from the most senior common councilmen, and 16 common councilmen selected from the freemen, who usually held their offices for life. A sheriff was appointed annually by the common council from among their number and served as the returning officer for parliamentary elections. By the early nineteenth century the chamber was dominated by ‘gentlemen’, surgeons and other professionals, and a few socially superior tradesmen such as wine merchants. The franchise was principally in the freemen, who obtained their privilege through birth (the eldest sons of freemen and all sons of aldermen), marriage (to an alderman’s daughter), servitude or honorary award (mostly to non-residents); the number of non-resident freemen is unclear. Admissions were concentrated in election years and numbered 115 in 1818, 43 in 1820, 88 in 1825-6, 72 in 1830 and 30 in 1831. Exeter’s administrative status as a county meant that 40s. freeholders were also eligible to vote, and they seem to have accounted for approximately one-third of the electorate. Freemen were exempt from the town dues, levied by the chamber on all goods entering the port, and were entitled to ‘some small charitable payments’; but the main incentive for obtaining the status was the financial benefit attached to the parliamentary franchise, and contested elections had become notoriously expensive affairs. The chamber was an exclusively Anglican body, even after repeal of the Test Acts, and it found a natural ally in the cathedral and parish clergy. Together they articulated a widely shared sense of pride in the city’s reputation for loyalty to the crown and to the Protestant cause. It was customary on 29 May for citizens to decorate their houses with oak branches, and for effigies of the pope to be burned on 5 November. However, ‘irritating social jealousies’ existed between the elite groups controlling the chamber and the smaller tradesmen and shopkeepers, and it was typically among these latter groups that religious Dissent was a reviving force in the early nineteenth century. The payment of town dues was another source of resentment among non-freemen, and the heavy debts incurred by the chamber in paying for its canal project led to substantially increased tolls. In 1828 the Western Times, edited by Thomas Latimer, ‘the Cobbett of the West’, emerged as a trenchant critic of the chamber-cathedral establishment. The chamber had usually endorsed Tory and Whig candidates, and after 1802 there was no contested election until 1818, when the pro-Catholic Tory, William Courtenay, son of a former bishop of Exeter, and the anti-Catholic Whig, Robert Newman of Sandridge, were returned ahead of a radical, Thomas Northmore of Cleve House.3

At the dissolution in 1820 the sitting Members signified their intention of standing again, although ill health prevented both of them from canvassing. This work was performed for Courtenay by a committee, chaired by the mayor, Henry Blackall, and for Newman by his brother Thomas and other supporters. Courtenay’s return was considered ‘almost certain’, but there was a ‘strong party’ determined, as Lord Rolle of Bicton reported to the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, to find a ‘country gentleman’ willing to offer ‘in opposition to Mr. Newman’. In a letter to a supporter, Courtenay observed that ‘I have long foreseen that the politics of my colleague were likely to cause some disturbance’, a reference to Newman’s support for reform and opposition to the government’s emergency legislation. Courtenay added that ‘as to my seat I feel perfectly easy. My only anxiety is about expense upon which head I have been very peremptory and I hope ... the shortness of the time will prevent any mischief in this way’. A meeting of electors at the Swan, chaired by the corporator John Williams, 28 Feb., agreed to invite the courtier Lord Graves of nearby Bishop’s Court to stand, only to learn that he was already provided for at Milborne Port. Some 120 voters then signed a requisition to Sir John Leman Rogers† of Blachford, who held a ‘long conference’ with the committee in Exeter before declining. Finally, a requisition was sent to Sir William Templer Pole of Shute, whose willingness to stand was only conveyed to a meeting at the New London Inn on the eve of the election. Pole declared that it would be ‘inconsistent with my duty to my family to involve myself in any of the expense of an election’, and it was therefore resolved to raise a subscription.4 Courtenay was nominated by Blackall and the wine merchant William Kennaway, Newman by Robert Russell and the Rev. Abraham Vicary, and Pole by Williams and the attorney Thomas Turner, who commended him as ‘a gentleman who would neither court the smiles of ministry or adhere to that opposition who on no occasion give the government ... the credit of doing anything right’. Thomas Peregrine Courtenay* spoke on his brother’s behalf, attempting to explain amid constant interruptions that he considered it ‘his duty to the public welfare ... to support measures to repress meetings ... where the object was dangerous to the state’. Newman, who was present but ‘labouring under severe indisposition’, maintained that he was ‘of no political party’ and had ‘never given a vote ... not solely actuated by love of my country’. Pole, who claimed to be acting from a sense of public duty at a time of crisis, said he was ‘embarrassed by no political prepossessions’ and that his only principle was a ‘firm attachment to our glorious constitution in church and state’. At the end of the first day Courtenay led by 116 votes to Newman’s 93 and Pole’s 69. On the second, Courtenay and Newman extended their advantage with 418 and 352 votes respectively. Pole, on 192, claimed to have ‘assurances of powerful support from all classes’ and was still confident, but he retired on the afternoon of the third day. Judging from an anonymous, partial analysis of the result, of the 815 who polled, 77 per cent cast a vote for Courtenay, 65 for Newman and 34 for Pole. Newman secured 147 plumpers (28 per cent of his total), Courtenay 37 and Pole 11. Courtenay and Newman had 353 split votes (57 and 66 per cent of their respective totals), Courtenay and Pole received 235 (38 and 85) and Newman and Pole 32. Of those who polled, 403 were resident and 94 non-resident freemen, and 318 were freeholders.5 Newman gave a dinner to a ‘numerous company’ at the New London Inn, where he justified the need for a conscientious opposition to the government and deplored the ‘desire of some individuals in this city’ to ‘do away with this second party’. Courtenay later dined with 55 supporters at the same venue, where he denounced reform and claimed that it was ‘from his situation as Member for such a city as Exeter’ that he had been able to take the lead in the proceedings against John Cam Hobhouse*. Ralph Barnes, the bishop’s registrar and chapter clerk, celebrated the fact that the chamber had been responsible for the first conviction under the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act. At a dinner for 57 of Pole’s supporters at Congdon’s Hotel, Williams denied that the chamber was seeking to monopolize the representation and maintained that he had acted ‘perfectly independently’ of it, ‘not a single individual ... being ... aware of my intention’: while it was true that ‘a majority of the members did ... vote for Sir William Pole ... as a body, they know nothing of the worthy baronet’. No pollbook survives, but it seems unlikely that Newman received much support from the chamber and that he was regarded as the representative of the ‘independent’ electors.6 Courtenay later complained about the size of the ‘bills for eating and drinking previous to the election’, but he was unwilling to ‘place the committee or the respectable part of the managers in an unpleasant situation’ and offered to contribute £500. With regard to the future, though, he wished it to be made known that he was determined ‘either [to] represent Exeter without feasting or not at all’.7

The diocesan clergy sent anti-Catholic petitions to the Commons, 7 July 1820, 28 Feb., and the chamber petitioned both Houses to the same effect, 19 Mar. 1821. Following a meeting in the guildhall, 6 Apr. 1821, a similar petition to the Lords with ‘about 3,000 signatures’ was promoted, but apparently not presented.8 On 14 Sept. 1820 Northmore presented Queen Caroline with addresses from ‘more than 10,000’ Exeter inhabitants, the parish of St. Sidwell and over 9,000 female inhabitants. Next month a private meeting was held in the guildhall to organize a loyal address to the king, one of the leading figures being Thomas Flindell, the proprietor of the Western Luminary and a bitter critic of the queen.9 In November the news of the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties was greeted with enthusiasm, and the ‘firing of pistols, discharging of rockets [and] other demonstrations of rejoicing filled the streets’. An illumination in St. Sidwell’s was widely observed on the 15th, and handbills were circulated encouraging a general illumination for the next day. The mayor, Robert Sanders, issued a declaration, signed by 325 ‘well-disposed citizens’, promising to protect those householders who chose not to light up. In the event, ‘public opinion was greatly divided on the occasion’, and while illuminations were fairly general in the principal streets and many ‘back streets and lanes’, the ‘dwellings of the higher ranks’ in the more fashionable areas remained in almost ‘total darkness’.10 The inhabitants presented petitions to Parliament for revision of the criminal law in May 1822.11 The chamber, clergy and six parishes petitioned the Lords against the Catholic peers bill in 1822 and both Houses against Catholic claims in 1825, when the Unitarians petitioned the Commons in favour of concession.12 Several petitions for repeal of the coal duties were sent to both Houses by the inhabitants in 1824, and ‘upwards of 1,200 ... respectable householders’ at a public meeting forwarded a petition to the Commons for repeal of the house and window taxes, 7 Mar. 1826.13 An anti-slavery petition with 3,764 signatures, promoted at a public meeting, was presented to Parliament, 16 Mar., and the inhabitants pressed the Commons for inquiry into the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 28 May 1824. Following a meeting addressed by James Cropper of Liverpool, a leader of the national anti-slavery movement, a public meeting was summoned by requisition, 27 Feb., when the speakers included the barristers George Browne and John Tyrrell, and petitions were sent to both Houses, 16 Mar. 1826.14

In February 1825 John Stanbury, the notorious ‘election general’, arrived in the city to promote the candidature of a ‘third man’. A meeting of electors at the Horse and Groom on the 28th authorized him to ‘introduce a regular church and king gentleman’, who was rumoured to be ‘a baronet and banker’, and it was reported that ‘the majority of ... electors residing at Barnstaple, Plymouth, London and other places are already secured’. Advertisements appeared in April for a dinner at which a man of ‘considerable property’ would be introduced, but this had to be postponed owing to the anonymous candidate’s unwillingness to pledge himself against further concessions to the Catholics. In his place, ‘another gentleman, firmly attached to church and state’, was ready to offer, who proved to be William Tyssen of London, son of the sheriff of Kent. He arrived on 13 June in a carriage with flags proclaiming ‘success for Tyssen and freedom of election’, and nearly 300 people attended a dinner that evening at the New London Inn, where the speakers included the coal dealer John White and the baker George Buckland. Further dinners were given at different venues on consecutive evenings, orders were issued to distribute ‘large quantities of beer, etc. at houses in every part of Exeter ... for which prompt payment [was] invariably made’, and Tyssen’s canvass met with ‘the happiest success’.15 His candidature provided a focus for expressions of local discontent with the sitting Members, and posters appeared accusing them of a ‘uniform system of absenteeism’ and of being ‘found wanting in the good offices of courteous intercourse with their constituents’; Courtenay’s pro-Catholic votes were also condemned. It was argued that Exeter had been ‘served through the medium of a few political hucksters’, who had ‘reduced the business to a mere monopoly’, and that it was time for the people to ‘look out for ourselves’. On the other hand, some who wanted a third man were dismayed that no local candidate could be found, while others were uneasy about Stanbury’s involvement.16 In August Newman announced that he would not stand at the next election, a decision which he insisted was unconnected with recent events. This prompted Samuel Kekewich of Peamore House, an ‘independent country gentleman of our own neighbourhood’, to conduct a canvass which was successful ‘in every quarter of the city’; he subsequently asserted his ‘fixed determination to stand unconnected and alone’.17 The intervention of Tyssen and Kekewich obliged Courtenay to confirm publicly his intention of standing again, but his prospects were considered to be uncertain and in a private letter he reportedly deprecated the anticipated early dissolution ‘as being in the present temper fatal to his interests’.18 It is likely that his predicament influenced his decision to accept an appointment as clerk-assistant of the Parliaments, which occasioned an unexpected by-election in February 1826. The proceedings were handled with what one newspaper correspondent described as ‘suspicious alacrity’: the writ was received on Saturday the 4th, proclaimed the next day and the election fixed for the following Thursday. Kekewich, who later admitted that he had ‘by mere chance’ received advance information of Courtenay’s resignation, offered immediately, while Tyssen was ‘anxiously looked for by his friends’. He finally sent an address explaining that he had been taken ‘completely by surprise’ and had decided to wait until the general election, when ‘everything will be fair, open and public’. Stanbury summoned a meeting at which he advised against taking further action until the dissolution, but a declaration of support with ‘more than 400’ signatures was sent to Tyssen urging him to make an early appearance among his friends. Kekewich, who was nominated by the Rev. Charles Collyns, headmaster of the free grammar school, and the merchant and former candidate Edmund Granger, was returned unopposed. He indicated support for lower corn duties, promised to study the currency question and affirmed his personal opposition to Catholic relief, but gave no pledges and resolved to follow the path of ‘strict independence’. Alluding to a handbill which had been circulated, he denied that he had ‘precipitated this election’. After the chairing, ‘about 350 electors and friends’ dined at the Subscription Rooms, where the speakers included Barnes and the Rev. Chancellor Martin, and dinners were given at various inns for the other voters.19

Much speculation followed as to Tyssen’s intentions, and it was ‘more than rumoured that a gentleman of our own neighbourhood will be brought forward’ to contest the vacancy when Newman retired. In late February 1826 Tyssen announced that ‘particular circumstances’ had induced him to withdraw altogether, and a requisition was immediately organized by the builder Robert Cornish junior, the wine merchant Charles Brake and the picture dealer James Burt, inviting Lewis Buck of Daddon, near Bideford, to stand; ‘in the short space of 12 hours [it] received 117 signatures’. Buck accepted and soon arrived to canvass, accompanied by a large party of supporters including Sanders, Granger, Archdeacon Moore and Sir Stafford Northcote of Pynes. He promised to remain ‘strictly independent’ but emphasized that he was ‘decidedly adverse to any further concessions’ to the Catholics.20 Meanwhile, there were attempts in Whig circles to find another candidate. The duke of Bedford, who had a Devon estate, was disinclined to ‘meddle with Exeter politics’ but suggested that Lord Ebrington*, the former county Member, and ‘his friend Sir George Bampfylde’ of Poltimore might take the initiative. A requisition was forwarded to Bampfylde inviting him to offer, but he declined ‘with an intimation that spoke volumes, that the dear-bought honour had formerly cost his father above £80,000’. The same party then unsuccessfully requisitioned Serjeant Thomas Wilde*.21 Consequently, there was no sign of opposition to Kekewich and Buck when Parliament was dissolved in June. The Rev. Thomas Bartlam and Major James Pitman sponsored Kekewich, and Edmund Pusey and Brake introduced Buck, who were duly elected. Kekewich remained reticent on the currency question, repeated his ‘inviolable’ opposition to Catholic relief, defended his vote for revision of the corn laws, said he would support ‘ameliorative measures and [the] eventual abolition’ of slavery and was unable to see his way clearly on parliamentary reform. Buck expressed his ‘zeal for his king’ and for ‘the constitution in church and state’. The chairing took place in a carnival atmosphere, until it was interrupted by a violent thunderstorm. Kekewich gave a dinner to ‘about 200’ friends at the New London Inn, where Collyns toasted Courtenay, Buck gave one to ‘about 350’ at the Subscription Rooms, deputations were exchanged and ‘cards were ... issued for a certain number at each of the principal public houses’. At a subsequent dinner to celebrate Buck’s admission as a freeman, Sanders claimed that the fact that no member of the chamber had signed the requisition to him proved that Buck was ‘not beholden to the chamber but to the independent freemen and freeholders’. Indeed, far from wishing to exercise ‘undue authority over their fellow citizens’ the chamber was content to ‘remain in the background’.22

The owners and occupiers of neighbouring land forwarded petitions to Parliament for the maintenance of agricultural protection in 1827.23 Protestant Dissenting chapels sent up petitions for repeal of the Test Acts to the Commons, 31 May, 6 June 1827, and both Houses, 15, 20, 21, 25 Feb., but the archdeacon and clergy and the chamber petitioned in the opposite sense, 18, 24 Mar., 2 Apr. 1828; both Members voted for repeal.24 There was extensive petitioning against Catholic claims in 1827 and 1828.25 On 15 Nov. 1828, following a requisition to the mayor, John James, signed by 105 individuals, a meeting was convened to petition Parliament in defence of the ‘Protestant religion and the liberties of England’. One Tory newspaper had ‘never before [seen] so crowded an assembly ... even at an election’. Barnes moved the petition and was seconded by the surgeon Philip De La Garde. Tyrrell put forward a counter-motion entrusting the matter to Parliament, which was seconded by Mark Kennaway, clerk to the improvement commissioners; both were frequently interrupted. Collyns spoke in favour of the original motion and the Unitarian minister Henry Acton for the alternative, and the former was carried by a majority of ‘at least ten to one’. At the end of the proceedings the Members spoke briefly in support of the petition, which was signed by ‘more than 2,000 inhabitants’ and presented by Kekewich and Rolle, with ones from the archdeacon and clergy and the chamber, in February and March 1829. The supporters of emancipation sent a counter-petition, 9, 16 Mar.26 By February James Wentworth Buller of Downes, who had advocated emancipation at the county meeting the previous month, predicted that most Exonians would reluctantly acquiesce in the measure expected from the duke of Wellington’s ministry. Buck adhered to his anti-Catholic views, but Kekewich supported the government’s bill. According to Buller, there was ‘much warmth of feeling’ in the city but it seemed to be ‘subsiding and I hope will not long outlive the fire in which the pope ... Peel and Kekewich were burnt’.27 The inhabitants forwarded petitions to Parliament for repeal of the coastwise coal duty in May 1829. In March 1830 a requisition to the Members, signed by 323 electors and inhabitants, urged them to support immediate repeal of the house and window taxes and of the coal duty; they replied that they favoured repeal of the latter and wished to see a general reduction in the burden of taxation, but gave no specific commitments.28 The inhabitants and several Dissenting chapels petitioned Parliament for abolition of the death penalty for forgery that session.29

In late June 1830, with a general election imminent, Kekewich announced that unspecified reasons of a ‘private character’ compelled him to retire. This prompted expressions of regret in the Tory press, although the Western Times assumed that Kekewich believed he had offended the chamber and cathedral by his vote for Catholic emancipation and had therefore ‘deemed it prudent’ to withdraw. Buck immediately confirmed his intention of standing again, and a requisition with 108 names was sent to Buller, inviting him to ‘maintain the unsullied loyalty and uncompromising independence’ of the city, which he promptly accepted. The signatories included many prominent Tories such as Blackall, Sanders, Barnes, Cornish, Granger and Edward Woolmer, the proprietor of the Exeter and Devon Gazette. A few squibs were circulated as ‘a touch off’ to Buller’s conduct over the Catholic question, and it was reported that a body of up to 300 electors, known as ‘the Grecians’, were looking out for ‘a third man ... of staunch church and king principles’, with whom they could split their votes for Buck. The Rev. Jonas Dennis and John Cooke apparently sent a requisition to the Ultra Sir Charles Wetherell*, but the offer was declined and no other candidate was forthcoming. Buck’s return was considered to be ‘a matter of certainty’, and after Buller’s successful canvass those who had reserved their votes abandoned all hope of a contest. Buller expressed gratitude for the way in which the electors had ‘not required ... any declaration of my sentiments upon particular measures’ and left him free to exercise his independent judgement. It was remarked that many voters were friendly to him through recollection of the personal qualities of his father, a former Member, who had spent ‘an immense sum’ on his contests.30 Collyns and the wine merchant William Crockett nominated Buck, and Sir Humphrey Davie of Creedy House and Granger sponsored Buller. Buck promised to pursue ‘the same path of independence’ as before and support retrenchment wherever possible. Buller professed solicitude for the ‘rights and immunities’ of the established church and rejected Collyns’s implication that in his case independence meant having no views; on the pressing question of economy and retrenchment he claimed to be ‘a strong advocate for great reduction’. To loud applause he declared that while ‘he would not offer to surrender up to them his own judgement ... if there was any matter which was perfectly even between them, he would always submit the grounds of his opinions to them, and be guided by them’. When Barnes raised the question of the coal duties, both candidates expressed their support for repeal. After they were declared elected, Buck was chaired in his ‘customary triumphal car’ and Buller in an ‘orthodox Roman chariot’. Some ‘400 gentlemen’ dined with Buck at the Subscription Rooms and ‘about 320’ with Buller at the New London Inn; deputations were exchanged. The ‘usual quantities of beer, cider and spirits were distributed amongst the populace, and the freemen had ... invitations to the various inns in the city’.31 It had been predicted beforehand that Buck would spend ‘at least £2-3,000 ... if unopposed’; Buller’s expenses totalled £1,414.32

Following a requisition to the mayor, Paul Measor, there was a ‘very large’ attendance at the guildhall, 8 Nov. 1830, when Browne, Tyrrell, Mark Kennaway and several clergymen advocated an anti-slavery petition, which was agreed but apparently not presented; the Ladies’ Anti-slavery Society and Dissenting chapels did petition both Houses, 29 Mar., 13 Apr. 1831.33 Barnes and De La Garde were the prime movers at a similar meeting, 11 Nov., which forwarded a petition to the Commons against the coastwise coal duty, 9 Dec. 1830. A requisition with 318 names was also sent to the Members, urging them to press for repeal of this and of the assessed taxes; both promised to oppose the former and were sympathetic to other reductions where possible.34 On 23 Feb. 1831 Measor convened a meeting to consider Tyrrell’s motion for a petition in favour of reform and shorter parliaments, which he argued would represent ‘a return to the salutary principles of the constitution’; the chemist Richard Evans seconded him. Captain George Truscott moved a pro-ballot amendment, contending that it offered the ‘only effectual protection ... against tyranny and oppression’, and was seconded by the general tradesman John Osborn. Thomas Besley, the proprietor of the Exeter News, advocated an alternative petition for universal suffrage, but he found no seconder. Acton supported the original motion, maintaining that the ballot would not stop bribery, and Captain Hamlyn supported the ballot amendment, which was ‘carried with only three dissentients’. The resulting petition had ‘upwards of 1,500 names’ attached to it and was presented to the Commons by Buck, 28 Feb. A rival petition from supporters of ‘moderate reform’, opposed to the ballot, received ‘between 6 and 700’ signatures and was sent to both Houses, 28 Feb., 22 Mar.35 On 10 Mar. ‘upwards of 2,000’ people attended another meeting at the guildhall, where Northmore moved to address the crown and petition Parliament in support of the Grey ministry’s reform bill. He blamed the representative system for high taxes, poverty and crime, claimed as a fellow of the Antiquarian Society to have proof that scot and lot had been the original borough franchise and welcomed the advent of ‘a patriot king and a patriot ministry’; he was seconded by Captain Thomas Buller of Whimple. Tyrrell supported the motion, as did Acton, who remarked on the extraordinary ‘revolution of feeling and opinion’ in Exeter on reform. Critics such as the attorney Charles Brutton, Mark Kennaway and William Nation were frequently interrupted as they claimed to be ‘temperate’ reformers concerned with the bill’s injurious effects on the constitution and the implications for Exeter’s freemen, and there was an ‘excessive tumult’ when Barnes tried to speak. The address was ‘carried almost unanimously’ and the petitions were agreed with ‘about 20 dissentients’; Northmore and Truscott were deputed to present the address, while the petitions were presented by Buck and lord chancellor Brougham, 19, 21 Mar. The chamber petitioned the Lords against the bill’s disfranchising clauses, 13 Apr.36 After the Members had voted for the second reading, some 30 resident voters, led by Truscott and Tyrrell, sent memorials expressing satisfaction with their conduct and inquiring as to their intentions during the committee stage. Buller stressed his approval of the bill’s ‘general principles’, but added that he must exercise independent judgement on its details. Buck was equally anxious to remain unpledged, but confirmed his belief that ‘the representative system in the rotten boroughs should undergo a total reform’. The Western Times, which was satisfied with these replies, reported that Collyns was ‘encouraging a gentleman to offer ... on the Tory interest’ and that another was ‘ready to start ... on liberal principles should the present Members afford an opportunity’. Whereas Buller divided against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, Buck voted for it, and a meeting of the ‘reform committee’ chaired by Truscott, 23 Apr., resolved that Buck had ‘forfeited our confidence’ and that Edward Divett of Bystock, Thomas Buller’s brother-in-law, should be asked to stand. Divett, who was in London, was apparently urged to accept this invitation by Ebrington and Bampfylde. John Thomas Mayne, a barrister on the Western circuit, offered as a reformer and began canvassing, but withdrew on learning that arrangements were already in place to promote Divett’s interest. Buck and Buller commenced their canvasses three days before the election. In his address, Buller declared his ‘zealous support’ for a measure ‘calculated to strengthen the constitution’, while Buck described himself as ‘a constitutional reformer’ who considered the proposed £10 borough franchise to be ‘too low’, the disfranchisement of freemen unjust and the transfer of seats from England to Ireland dangerous to the Union. Divett arrived the day before the election and promised to stand a contest if there was a fair chance of success, but he regretted that little time remained for personal canvassing given ‘the rapidity with which the sheriff has hastened’ the proceedings. A ‘large party’ immediately started a ‘very industrious canvass’ on his behalf, which was ‘kept up through the day’.37 Buck was nominated by Colonel Wright and seconded, amidst ‘immense uproar’, by the banker Joseph Sanders, who warned that the proposed franchise would ‘destroy the wholesome and legitimate influence of property’. Buller was briefly introduced by Davie and Granger. Divett’s sponsors, Thomas Buller and Truscott, attacked Buck but expressed support for Buller. Buck, who had difficulty in obtaining a hearing, denied that he had intended to defeat the bill by voting for Gascoyne’s amendment, which merely upheld ‘the integrity of the ... British representation’, and maintained that he wanted the bill to pass so that ‘the country might be tranquillized’. He had ‘redeemed every pledge he entered into on the subject’ and complained that ‘persons whom, up to a very recent period, I was warranted in considering my friends’ were now arrayed against him. Buller, who was enthusiastically received, welcomed the bill as a ‘tangible and specific remedy for great national grievances’, indicated a preference for the borough franchise to be set on ‘some scale’, varying according to the size of the population, and expressed regret for the loss of the freemen’s privilege, although he thought most would still qualify as £10 householders. Divett professed his ‘unqualified support’ for the bill, declared that reformers must ‘unite ... in sweeping away that enormous mass of corruption which had been eating for years into the vitals of the constitution’ and was confident that the freemen would ‘willingly make that sacrifice to carry the great cause’. There followed bitter recriminations between Buck and Truscott, and the proceedings descended into chaos for half an hour. When order was restored, the show of hands was called in Buller and Divett’s favour, but Buck’s friends demanded a poll. Tyrrell insisted that polling booths be erected, in accordance with the Act of 1828 (9 Geo. IV, c. 59), and despite opposition from the attorney William Furlong on behalf of the chamber, which wanted polling to begin immediately in the guildhall, the sheriff ordered that three booths be put up in the Oat Market. Polling commenced the next morning and strenuous efforts were made by Buck and Divett’s supporters, ‘the return of Buller being considered sure’. At the end of the day Buller was comfortably ahead with 447 votes, but Buck only led Divett by 286 to 249. On the second day, a Saturday, Divett’s friends circulated encouraging reports that ‘messengers had been dispatched in various directions, even so far as London, to collect votes’, but by midday ‘considerable languor prevailed’ as it became clear that he was ‘fast losing ground’. At the end of the day Buller led by 753 votes to Buck’s 548 and Divett’s 379. Divett, in announcing his retirement, said the result proved that ‘reform would flourish’, and he accused the church and chamber of exercising ‘undue influence’ on Buck’s behalf, a charge that Barnes and Measor repudiated. The poll was reopened on Monday morning and closed after an hour, when the numbers were confirmed and Buller and Buck declared elected; they made conciliatory speeches and were chaired in a surprisingly ‘joyous’ atmosphere.38

According to a manuscript pollbook in Buller’s papers, of the 910 who polled, 83 per cent cast a vote for Buller, 60 for Buck and 42 for Divett. Buck secured 108 plumpers (20 per cent of his total), Divett 19 and Buller 13. Buller and Buck had 410 split votes (54 and 75 per cent of their respective totals), Buller and Divett received 330 (44 and 87) and Buck and Divett 30. Of those who polled, 776 were residents, 396 being freeholders and 380 freemen; almost all the non-resident voters came from Devon. Resident and non-resident votes were distributed fairly evenly between the candidates. Buck did better with the freemen, as 52 residents and 23 non-residents plumped for him and 206 residents and 50 non-residents gave him a split vote. The Western Times produced an analysis to substantiate its claim that the church and chamber had used their joint influence ‘as much as is exercised in a rotten borough’. This showed that of 45 voters who were clergymen or lay church officials, 43 gave a vote for Buck, 26 for Buller and two for Divett, while of 44 voters who were common councilmen or chamber officials, all voted for Buck, 35 for Buller and none for Divett. There were also 21 occupants of almshouses, allegedly subjected to intimidation by the chamber, and of these 20 gave a vote for Buck, 18 for Buller and none for Divett.39 In a reaction against the ‘lavish expenditure usual at elections’, the candidates were invited to dine with their respective supporters ‘at the electors’ ... expense’. The reformers claimed that they had met all Divett’s expenses, ‘every agent and man working gratis’, but alleged that Buck had spent ‘large sums ... in intoxicating the electors’. Buller’s expenses amounted to £750, which was paid to Ralph Sanders and Brutton. Divett later dined with ‘about 30’ of his friends at the White Hart, where he expressed his readiness to offer again and ‘hoped to be instrumental in defeating the corporation influence’.40

At a public meeting chaired by Measor, 13 Sept. 1831, Thomas Buller moved to petition the Lords for the speedy passage of the reintroduced reform bill. He was seconded by Tyrrell, who accused Ralph Barnes of spreading false alarm with posters warning the freemen that they would all be disfranchised; Acton echoed his complaint. The motion was ‘passed unanimously’ and ‘upwards of 3,000’ signed the petition, which was presented on 3 Oct. The freemen had petitioned the Lords for the preservation of their voting rights, 30 Sept.41 When the Lords rejected the bill, local anger was concentrated on the new bishop, the high Tory controversialist Henry Phillpotts. Another meeting was convened at the guildhall, 15 Oct., to consider an address to the king in support of ministers and of ‘such constitutional means’ as were necessary to resolve the crisis. Davie, the mover, feared the ‘awful consequences’ that might follow ‘in the event of a second rejection’, and Thomas Buller, the seconder, ‘implored the people to be peaceable’. Colonel Arthur Molesworth moved, amidst ‘tremendous hissing’, an amendment to ‘qualify the bill ... which he considered too democratical’, and was supported by Collyns and Ralph Barnes. Mark Kennaway put forward a compromise amendment to raise the borough franchise, which was seconded by the surgeon Edward Pridham. Tyrrell opposed both amendments and condemned the bishops in a speech which concluded ‘amid loud and reiterated plaudits’. The amendments were rejected by large majorities and the address was ‘carried with ... only about eight hands held up against it’; Lord Brougham was chosen to present it. A motion of thanks to James Buller was ‘carried with acclamation’, and he spoke briefly in praise of the government. ‘Three groans’ were given to the absent Buck, who had not voted on Ebrington’s confidence motion, and there were ‘three special groans for the bishop, by way of finale’.42 The Bristol riots provoked fears of similar disturbances at Exeter where, as Phillpotts reported to Wellington, 5 Nov., ‘many of the miscreants who have escaped from the dragoons [at Bristol] are now ... joined to the dregs of this large population’. Inflammatory bills were being ‘freely circulated’, calling on the people to ‘arm themselves and imitate the heroic acts of the Bristol men to put down the bloody usurpers’, and it was feared that the 5 Nov. celebrations might provide the occasion for ‘an insurrection against property among the lower orders’. However, a large number of special constables were sworn in, the East Devon yeomanry cavalry, commanded by Ebrington, were kept on standby in the vicinity and the evening passed off with no more than the burning of effigies of Phillpotts and Rolle.43 During the early months of 1832 many reformers were preoccupied with the bill sponsored by the improvement commissioners to augment their money-raising powers, which provided another vehicle for protest against the city establishment. On 9 Feb. a ratepayers’ committee was formed, with the banker Henry Collins as chairman and Besley and Osborn among the principal figures. At a heated public meeting chaired by the mayor, William Kennaway, 3 Mar., the bill’s supporters were accused of having corrupt motives, and several amendments were demanded to make the new commission more accountable, above all by reducing the chamber’s ex-officio representation. Despite some concessions, the bill was condemned at another public meeting, 2 June, and further amendments were made before it was passed later that month.44 On 16 May ‘about 175’ people attended a ‘Conservative meeting’ at the New London Inn, chaired by Granger, where the corporator Joseph Were moved a loyal address to the king praising his refusal to create new peers in order to carry the revised reform bill. The address, which offered no opinion on the reform question, was seconded by the Rev. John Bull, the bishop’s commissary, who warned that ‘they had now to contend for the monarchical institutions of the country’; it was presented at a levee.45 Next day William Kennaway convened a meeting, requested by ‘nearly 400 persons’, to consider the constitutional crisis, although it had been overtaken by events. Thomas Buller welcomed the reinstatement of Lord Grey’s ministry and moved a loyal address to the king, which was seconded by Joseph Chichester and ‘carried unanimously’. Tyrrell observed that it was no longer necessary to call for the withholding of supplies, and he therefore moved to petition the Commons in support of the government; this was seconded by Browne and also unanimously adopted. Truscott, in moving an address of thanks to Grey, condemned Buck for voting against Ebrington’s recent motion and hoped the electors would dispense with his services. He also advised people not to sign a petition being circulated by the Conservatives against the enlargement of Exeter’s parliamentary boundaries, arguing that ‘as matters stood ... the Members ... were little more than nominees of the church and chamber’, and that even with the £10 household voters ‘little in the way of freedom of election could be gained unless that influence was further checked’. John Mackintosh seconded the motion, which was also carried unanimously, but it does not appear that either the addresses or the petition was presented.46 When news of the bill’s passage reached Exeter ‘a large party ... perambulated the town’, cheering at the houses of reformers and ‘assailing the anti-reformers with loud groans and hisses’; some windows were broken. However, plans for a general illumination were abandoned, and it proved impossible to reach agreement on an alternative form of celebration.47

The boundary commissioners reported that ‘in almost every ... direction the suburbs of the city have largely outgrown the borough’ and that extended boundaries were ‘absolutely required’. They recommended that the parishes of St. Leonard, St. Thomas and Heavitree, which were ‘closely connected ... in trade and intercourse’ with the city, should be added to it.48 In 1832 there were said to be 2,952 registered electors, of whom 586 were freemen, but an alternative total of about 2,333 has been suggested.49 At the general election that year Buck retired (he was later returned for North Devon) and Buller and Divett were returned ahead of a Conservative.50 Divett held his seat until his death in 1864, but Buller was defeated in 1835 (he too was later returned for North Devon) and the representation was usually shared thereafter. Despite the Municipal Corporations Act, the Conservatives retained their grip on local government in Exeter for the rest of the century.51

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 524. An alternative local estimate arrived at a figure of 1,125 (R. Newton, 18th Cent. Exeter, 157).
  • 2. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 197-8; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 49-121; PP (1835), xxiii. 497; G. Oliver, Hist. Exeter, 262-8; W. Hoskins, Devon, 127-30; Newton, 120-52, 168-72.
  • 3. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 524, xxxviii. 121-4; (1835), xxiii. 485-98; M. Rowe and A. Jackson, Exeter Freemen, (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. extra ser. i, 1973), pp. xxvi-viii; A. Brockett, Nonconformity in Exeter, 160-234; Newton, 141-3.
  • 4. Alfred, 29 Feb., 7 Mar.; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 2 Mar.; The Times, 7 Mar.; Add. 38458, f. 310; Devon RO, Buller mss 2065M/SS2/19, Courtenay to J. Buller, 2 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 9, 16 Mar.; Alfred, 14 Mar. 1820; Devon RO ECL, ms poll analysis.
  • 6. Alfred, 21, 28 Mar., 18, 25 Apr. 1820.
  • 7. Devon RO 68/30/3/5, Courtenay to Toland [1820].
  • 8. CJ, lxxv. 422; lxxvi. 121, 179; LJ, liv. 110; Alfred, 10 Apr. 1821.
  • 9. The Times, 7, 15 Sept.; Alfred, 19 Sept., 17 Oct. 1820.
  • 10. Alfred, 14, 21 Nov.; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 16, 23 Nov. 1820.
  • 11. CJ, lxxvii. 247; LJ, lv. 151.
  • 12. CJ, lxxx. 193, 227, 320, 343, 384, 421; LJ, lv. 187, 195, 203, 210, 238, 244; lvii. 78, 137, 536, 566, 571, 626, 630, 666.
  • 13. CJ, lxxix. 76, 222; lxxxi. 134; LJ, lvi. 76; Alfred, 28 Feb., 14 Mar. 1826.
  • 14. CJ, lxxix. 168, 430; lxxxi. 175; LJ, lvi. 84; lviii. 113; Alfred, 24 Feb.-16 Mar. 1824, 14, 28 Feb. 1826.
  • 15. Alfred, 1, 8 Mar., 19 Apr., 24, 31 May, 14-28 June; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 3 Mar., 16, 23 June 1825.
  • 16. West Country Stud. Lib. (Exeter) LE 1825/06/17, 18, 21, ‘An Unbiased Voter’, ‘An Elector’, ‘Political Catechism for 1825’; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 2 June; Alfred, 28 June 1825.
  • 17. Alfred, 16-30 Aug.; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 18, 25 Aug. 1825.
  • 18. Alfred, 23 Aug. 1825; Arbuthnot Corresp. 70.
  • 19. Alfred, 7, 14 Feb.; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 9, 16 Feb. 1826.
  • 20. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 16 Feb., 9 Mar.; Alfred, 21 Feb.-14 Mar. 1826.
  • 21. Add. 51663, Bedford to Holland, 17 Aug. 1825; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 9, 23, 30 Mar.; The Times, 19 Apr. 1826.
  • 22. Alfred, 6, 13 June; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 6, 15 June, 6 July 1826.
  • 23. CJ, lxxxii. 216; LJ, lix. 104, 154, 290.
  • 24. CJ, lxxxii. 510, 520; lxxxiii. 74, 87, 181; LJ, lx. 55, 71, 134, 158.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxii. 258, 269, 270, 282; lxxxiii. 194, 324; LJ, lix. 100, 106, 116, 117, 120, 126, 139, 147, 153; lx. 134, 169, 214, 521.
  • 26. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 15, 22 Nov. 1828, 7 Mar. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 85, 94, 141; LJ, lxi. 13, 46, 66, 141.
  • 27. Bucks. RO, Fremantle mss D/FR/139/10/20, 29.
  • 28. CJ, lxxxiv. 346; LJ, lxi. 489; Western Times, 27 Mar., 10 Apr. 1830.
  • 29. CJ, lxxxv. 236, 330, 410, 439, 463; LJ, lxii. 176, 598, 722, 735, 740, 758.
  • 30. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 1-15, July; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 3-17 July; Alfred, 6-27 July; Western Times, 10, 31 July 1830.
  • 31. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 31 July; Western Times, 31 July; Alfred, 3 Aug. 1830.
  • 32. Western Times, 10 July 1830; Buller mss 2065M/SS2/20, election accts.
  • 33. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 6, 13 Nov. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 454-5; LJ, lxiii. 412, 414, 415.
  • 34. Western Times, 6, 13, 27 Nov., 4, 11 Dec. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 160.
  • 35. Alfred, 1 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 324; LJ, lxiii. 352.
  • 36. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 12 Mar., 2 Apr.; Western Times, 12 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 406; LJ, lxiii. 345, 410.
  • 37. Western Times, 9-23 Apr.; Besley’s Exeter News, 23, 30 Apr.; Alfred, 26 Apr.; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 28 Apr. 1831.
  • 38. Alfred, 3 May; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 5 May; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 7 May 1831.
  • 39. Buller mss 2065M/SS2/21, ms pollbook (the printed pollbook in T. Besley, Exeter Itinerary and General Dir. (1831) does not distinguish between freemen and freeholders); Western Times, 7, 21 May 1831; Newton, 155.
  • 40. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 7 May; Western Times, 7 May; Alfred, 17 May 1831; Buller mss 2065M/SS2/20, election accts.
  • 41. Besley’s Exeter News, 24 Sept., 1 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1027, 1034.
  • 42. Besley’s Exeter News, 15 Oct.; Exeter Independent, 18 Oct. 1831.
  • 43. Wellington mss WP1/1201/13; N. Devon RO 2558M/11/23, Rolle to Stevens, 6 Nov. 1831; R. Shutte, Life of Phillpotts, 309-20.
  • 44. Besley’s Exeter News, 12, 19 Feb., 4 Mar., 1 Apr., 3, 17 June 1832; Newton, 161-3.
  • 45. Besley’s Exeter News, 20, 27 May 1832.
  • 46. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 24 May 1832.
  • 47. Besley’s Exeter News, 10, 17 June, 22 July 1832.
  • 48. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 121-4.
  • 49. Ibid. (1835), xxiii. 498; Newton, 157-8.
  • 50. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 6, 13 Dec. 1832.
  • 51. Newton, 165-6.