Great Bedwyn


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 freeholders and burgage holders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

rising to about 140


905 (1821); 1,012 (1831)1


11 Feb. 1822NICHOLL re-elected after vacating his seat

Main Article

The borough of Great Bedwyn, ‘a group of shabby houses upon a hill’ which together were ‘not intrinsically worth a thousand pounds’, was composed of a small and wholly agricultural town and the two tithings of Bedwyn Prebend and Stock and Ford, and lay in the hundred of Kinwardstone on the eastern edge of Wiltshire.2 Like its neighbour Marlborough, it was a pocket borough of the 2nd earl (later 1st marquess) of Ailesbury of Tottenham Park and Savernake Lodge, whose father (whom he succeeded in 1814) had controlled both its seats since the mid-eighteenth century. Although nominally there were over 120 electors, he owned all but one of the 100 burgages and was the principal local landowner and lord of the manor, so that in practice the court leet simply confirmed his choice of Members. These were invariably Tory and anti-Catholic friends, who probably purchased their seats from him.3 When James Henry Leigh* transferred to Winchester in early 1818, Ailesbury brought in John Jacob Buxton, the only son of the Norfolk and Wiltshire country gentleman, Sir Robert John Buxton, a former Member. At the general election later that year Ailesbury returned Buxton with the other sitting Member, Sir John Nicholl, a Glamorgan squire, ecclesiastical judge and government legal adviser, who had sat since 1807. They were again quietly returned at the general election of 1820, for which, as was no doubt the usual practice, both visited the constituency.4

Nicholl resigned, 18 Aug. 1821, in order to contest a vacancy at Oxford University, but in a series of letters he sought to reassure his patron about Bedwyn:

Should the election be delayed, it is not probable that any attempt to disturb the borough will be made, and if made, it seems quite certain that it will be ineffectual. Nay the very circumstance of my seat being allowed to remain open for some time, will serve to convince any evil spirits that you do not fear attack; and prevent any attack at a future time; and those spirits are not much disposed to incur expense in an attempt where success would be quite hopeless.

Ailesbury, who had ‘no doubt of the steadiness of my friends at Bedwyn’, but thought that ‘every attention should always be shown them’, evidently had someone in mind as a replacement. This is unlikely to have been either John Nicholl† junior, whom his father considered suggesting, or Sir Thomas Swymmers Champneys of Orchardleigh, Somerset, who had written to offer his candidacy as a loyal supporter of the Liverpool administration.5 Nicholl was defeated, and Ailesbury was reluctant to take him back at Bedwyn, thinking that he had ambitions to repeat the attempt:

I cannot wish any friend to be chosen there who may have in view the representation of any other place. The inconvenience is already great, but would be increased by a repetition of it; in short, my object will be to have the election franchise used there as seldom as possible.

However, Nicholl made a public pledge not to renew his pretensions at Oxford, and Ailesbury ensured that he was re-elected at the start of the following session.6 He was tempted to try again for the University in early 1826, when Robert Peel, the home secretary and its sitting Member, commented that Nicholl’s difficulty with his current constituency arose from the ‘great unwillingness of Lord Ailesbury to have it vacated, perhaps the certainty that if vacated, he, Nicholl, would never be returned for it’. When it emerged that the vacancy would not be held over to the impending dissolution, he reiterated his preference for remaining at Bedwyn, and was relieved that Ailesbury had not intended to use his seat to provide for his eldest son Lord Bruce (who was instead soon brought in for Marlborough, in spite of an independent challenge).7 Nicholl and Buxton were returned without demur at the general election that summer, and again in 1830.

An anti-slavery petition from Bedwyn was presented by Thomas Macaulay, 15 Dec. 1830, and one in favour of parliamentary reform was brought up by Robert Slaney, 17 Feb. 1831.8 By the Grey ministry’s reform proposals, the borough was scheduled for abolition, and the portreeve, burgesses and inhabitants wrote a memorial asking for it to be allowed to retain one seat, as the population of the parish had risen from 1,928 in 1821 to 2,191 in 1831, and was therefore above the threshold for total disfranchisement.9 The Members, who both voted against reform, were elected for the last time at the general election of 1831, when Nicholl’s expenses were £300.10 A local petition in favour of using the most recent census was presented and endorsed at length by George Bankes, 19 July, and later the same day he was a teller for Mackinnon’s motion to that effect.11 He and Sir Charles Wetherell objected to Bedwyn’s disfranchisement, 20 July, but Lord John Russell gave them short shrift and the motion was agreed without a division. Apparently nothing came of Bankes’s intention to move an amendment to preserve the seat by extending its boundaries. With 171 houses, of which only 13 were valued at more than £10 a year, and assessed taxes of £98 for the year ending April 1831, Great Bedwyn was placed 20th on the final list of condemned boroughs, and was duly abolished by the Reform Act.12 Neither of the two Members nominated by Ailesbury, who retained his control over both seats at Marlborough, returned to the House after the dissolution in December 1832.

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 419, gives the population of the parish in 1801.
  • 2. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, i. 13; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 790, 791; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 112; (1833), xxxvii. 700; VCH Wilts. xvi. 11-13, 32, 33.
  • 3. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), v. 227, 228; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 21 Nov. 1825; PP (1830-1), x. 58; (1831-2), xxxvi. 498; Wilts. Arch. Mag. vi. (1860), 292; VCH Wilts. v. 212-14; xvi. 28, 29, 43, 44; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 420.
  • 4. Merthyr Mawr mss F/2/3, Nicholl diary, 5, 6 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Ibid. L/204/43, 44, 46, 47; Wilts. RO, Ailesbury mss 9/34/34; 35/109; 1300/5753.
  • 6. Merthyr Mawr mss L/204/34-36, 41, 42; Ailesbury mss 9/35/109.
  • 7. Merthyr Mawr mss F/2/9, Nicholl diary, 25-27 Jan. 1826; L/206/24, 25; Add. 40342, f. 303; 40385, f. 116.
  • 8. CJ, lxxxvi. 175, 264; The Times, 18 Feb. 1831.
  • 9. PP (1830-1), x. 129.
  • 10. Merthyr Mawr mss L/209, Ailesbury to Nicholl, 3 June 1831.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxvi. 673.
  • 12. PP (1831), xvi. 255; (1831-2), xxxvi. 40, 41, 112, 201, 498.