Great Marlow


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 inhabitants paying scot and lot

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 400 by 18311

Number of voters:

374 in 1831


2,532 (1821); 2,863 (1831)


7 Mar. 1820OWEN WILLIAMS  
10 June 1826OWEN WILLIAMS187 
 James Morrison122 
31 July 1830OWEN WILLIAMS209 
 William Robert Clayton171 
21 May 1831OWEN WILLIAMS1961932
 William Robert Clayton187184
3 Mar. 1832WILLIAM ROBERT CLAYTON vice Owen Williams, deceased  

Main Article

Great Marlow was ‘a respectable and well-built’ unincorporated borough on the southern border of Buckinghamshire, situated on the north bank of the Thames opposite the Berkshire parish of Bisham, which contained the Temple House home and copper mills of Owen Williams, Member since 1796 and possessor of the dominant electoral interest. There was some paper and lace making in the town. Municipal government was in the parish, which extended beyond the parliamentary borough; the two constables were the returning officers.3 Williams, a conservative Whig with a poor record of Commons attendance, owed his control principally to ownership of about half the houses, which he let at advantageous and often uneconomic rents. His chief supporter and representative in the borough was the brewer Thomas Wethered.4 There had been no serious challenge to Williams’s authority since 1802. At the general election of 1820 he discarded his colleague Pascoe Grenfell* of Taplow, his partner in the copper business (from which Williams withdrew before 1830), and brought in his 25-year-old elder son Thomas Peers Williams.5

The inhabitants of Marlow got up an address in support of Queen Caroline, which they entrusted to the Whig county Member Robert Smith, in December 1820;6 but not a single petition to either House has been found for the 1820 Parliament. The Williamses’ domination and negligence of their parliamentary duties were increasingly resented by a portion of the electorate, and the scope for rebellion was enhanced by Marlow’s enduring tradition of venality. Shortly before the general election of 1826 James Morrison*, a wealthy London silk merchant of advanced liberal views, appeared to challenge the sitting Members on a platform of electoral independence. He had supposedly been directed to Marlow by Thomas Wooler, editor of the Black Dwarf, who was said to have been made aware of the situation in ‘an accidental interview’ with a disgruntled inhabitant. Despite his late start Morrison polled very respectably, finishing only 25 below Thomas Williams in a poll of 259. He did not carry out his threat to petition against the return, but at a dinner for his supporters, 27 June 1826, he looked forward to success next time.7

Nothing came of a January 1827 report that Owen Williams was on the verge of retirement.8 In March he gave notice to quit to all his tenants who had cast a vote for Morrison. This outraged his opponents who, led by the surgeon John Goodman and the local poet William Tyler, author of Woodland Echoes, met on 12 Apr. to condemn Williams’ conduct and petition the Commons for revision of the Bribery Act and adoption of the secret ballot. Soon afterwards ‘some daring ruffian’ threw stones at the Williamses’ carriage as it conveyed them to a town hall dinner. The petition, and an address to the king in favour of the new Canning administration, were entrusted to Lord Nugent, Whig Member for Aylesbury.9 On 24 May Wadham Wyndham* of Beech Lodge chaired a meeting called to promote a petition against Catholic relief (which the Members favoured). Nugent managed to scotch the adoption of one which had been circulating for three weeks, but could not prevent the Waterloo veteran Colonel William Clayton, son and heir of Sir William Clayton of nearby Harleyford, Member for Marlow, 1783-90, who had sold much though not all of his urban property there to Owen Williams’s father in the early 1790s, from carrying a new one, which was presented to the Lords on 20 June 1827.10 Protestant Dissenters of Marlow petitioned both Houses for repeal of the Test Acts in 1827 and 1828.11 Morrison had sent his agent to Marlow to offer financial assistance to the threatened tenants, and on 25 July 1827 he dined by invitation with the leaders of the Independents, accepted a silver salver commemorating his intervention in 1826 and promised to persist in the struggle against ‘local oppression’. Tyler attacked Wethered and Owen Williams and claimed that none of the victimized tenants had been in arrears.12 They refused to budge when Williams tried to turn them out at the end of September 1827, but they were evicted four months later. Soon afterwards they were almost all ‘accommodated with superior habitations’ provided by Clayton, who had stepped into Morrison’s shoes as the independents’ champion.13 During 1828 he promoted a successful campaign to open the parish accounts to public inspection, which revealed costly ‘errors’ by the select vestry; and in the autumn the borough was reported to be ‘becoming spirited and renovated’ under his aegis.14 The Williamses’ support for Catholic emancipation in 1829, when the Wellington ministry no longer ranked them among the regular opposition, would have done Clayton no harm, although Marlow appears not to have petitioned on the issue. Morrison kept his foot in the door with a gift of ‘excellent tea’ to his supporters in January 1830. In April the independents carried the principle of the open nomination of parish overseers and churchwardens.15

It was reported a month before the 1830 general election that ‘occupiers or non-occupiers’ were being ‘crammed into the rate book’.16 Morrison briefly intervened but opted to stand for St. Ives. Owen and Thomas Williams, who had added to their unpopularity by opposing the sale of beer bill, beat Clayton by 38 and 21 votes respectively, in a poll of 360. Clayton’s 171 votes included 144 plumpers. There was some disorder at the chairing and Thomas Williams brought a flimsy charge of assault against Clayton’s clergyman brother Augustus.17 Three hundred dined with the Williamses, 9 Aug. On the 26th Clayton entertained his supporters and accused the returning officers of partiality and obstruction and the Williamses of circulating a false charge that he had broken a non-aggression contract between their families, dating from the sale of the Clayton property, and of trying to exploit his recent divorce. Grenfell’s son George announced that he would stand as a supporter of parliamentary reform at the next opportunity.18 Marlow and its neighbourhood escaped serious trouble during the ‘Swing’ disturbances of November 1830, but Sir George Nugent of nearby Westhorpe, in conjunction with the lord lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, the duke of Buckingham, for whose borough of Buckingham he sat, swore in a large number of special constables to guard against any future outbreaks. He feared that his plan to ‘assemble a mounted constabulary force of 50 men’ was likely to be hampered by the enmity between Clayton and Thomas Williams, which made it ‘most unpleasant to act with them’.19 Marlow Wesleyans petitioned the Commons for the abolition of slavery, 28 Mar. 1831.20 The Williamses voted against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, by which Marlow was scheduled to lose one seat on the basis of its 1821 population, 22 Mar. Over 40 leading inhabitants, including the only resident magistrate, requisitioned a public meeting to address the king and petition in support of the measure. The high constable of Desborough hundred refused permission and Owen Williams vetoed the use of the town hall, which he owned. The meeting was held on 7 Apr. in the market place and was chaired by Clayton’s brother East George Clayton East. Clayton declared his support for the principle of the bill, with minor reservations over its details. Other speakers included Tyler, Pascoe Grenfell, Clayton’s naval officer brother John and Colonel Sir Henry Watson. The petition, which did not reach the Commons but was presented to the Lords, 21 Apr. 1831, endorsed the bill but urged caution and the need to distinguish between boroughs which had been ‘long and ardently struggling for their independence’ and those which deserved disfranchisement. A sympathetic newspaper marked the meeting as ‘the era’ of Marlow’s ‘political existence, the dawn of its emancipation’.21

On the dissolution following the defeat of the reform bill Clayton started against the Williamses, whose partisans tried to obtain the precept in order to have the election called early, but were frustrated by the independents’ appeal to the sheriff. Owen Williams was too ill to attend. Clayton, who professed to be determined to spend no money, led at first, but at the close of a poll of 374 electors was nine below Owen Williams and five behind Thomas; he had 172 plumpers in his total of 187. He secured a scrutiny, which took place a fortnight later, but it merely struck off three votes from each man’s total. The pro-reform press claimed that the exercise had exposed the Williamses’ attempt to poll illegal out-voters and the multiplication of votes through frauds on the rating system.22 Marlow remained in schedule B of the reform bill reintroduced in July 1831, but subsequent parliamentary returns made it clear that the parish (including the borough) had a current population of over 4,200 and contained a viable number of £19 houses.23 Thomas Williams stressed this when protesting unsuccessfully against the borough’s confirmation in schedule B, 15 Sept. Under the new criteria adopted to determine disfranchisement for the revised bill of December 1831, Marlow came 93rd on the list of small boroughs ranked by number of houses and amount of assessed taxes, and so qualified to retain both seats. The boundary commissioners considered combining it with Maidenhead, five miles distant in Berkshire, but in the end recommended the addition to the old borough of the rest of the parish of Great Marlow, plus those of Little Marlow and Medmenham, in Buckinghamshire, and Bisham, to create a constituency with a population of 6,162 and 339 £10 houses.24

Owen Williams died in London on 23 Feb. 1832. Soon after midnight Lord Nugent, a lord of the treasury, secured the issue of the writ, and the by-election was fixed for 3 Mar. The opposition’s Charles Street committee was reported to have made a late bid to persuade a local anti-reformer to stand, but Clayton walked over amid ‘exhilarating’ scenes.25 At the general election in December 1832, when Great Marlow, now a sprawling rural borough, had a registered electorate of 457, Thomas Williams and Clayton were unopposed. The latter hung on to his seat until 1842, when he was removed on the petition of a Conservative opponent; the investigation revealed his bribery and some of Williams’s dubious methods of controlling voters. Williams sat until his retirement in 1868 for what was essentially a Conservative stronghold from the 1840s.26

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 552.
  • 2. on scrutiny
  • 3. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1823-4), 152-3; (1830), 85-87.
  • 4. R.W. Davis, Political Change and Continuity, 25; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 25-26; Oldfield, Key (1820), 55.
  • 5. Add. 58977, f. 165.
  • 6. The Times, 23 Dec. 1820.
  • 7. Bucks. Chron. 10, 17 June, 1 July; The Times, 20 June 1826; Davis, 86; R. Gatty, Portrait of a Merchant Prince, 65-69; H. Stooks Smith, Parls. of England ed. F.W.S. Craig (1973), 21.
  • 8. Bucks. Chron. 27 Jan. 1827.
  • 9. Ibid. 24 Mar., 14, 28 Apr., 26 May; The Times, 26 Mar. 1827; CJ, lxxxii. 595.
  • 10. Bucks. Chron. 26 May 1827; LJ, lix. 428.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxii. 505; lxxxiii. 83; LJ, lx. 52.
  • 12. Bucks. Chron. 21 July, 4 Aug. 1827.
  • 13. Ibid. 13 Oct. 1827, 26 Jan., 9 Feb. 1828.
  • 14. Ibid. 10 May, 21 June, 20 Sept., 29 Nov. 1828.
  • 15. Bucks Gazette, 23 Jan., 3, 10, 17 Apr. 1830.
  • 16. Ibid. 26 June 1830.
  • 17. Gatty, 102; Reading Mercury, 5, 26 July, 9, 16 Aug.; The Times, 26 July; Bucks Gazette, 14, 28 Aug. 1830.
  • 18. Bucks Gazette, 28 Aug., 4 Sept. 1830.
  • 19. Bucks. RO, Fremantle mss D/FR/139/14/72.
  • 20. CJ, lxxxvi. 445.
  • 21. Reading Mercury, 4, 11, 18, 25 Apr.; Bucks Gazette, 16 Apr. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 501.
  • 22. Reading Mercury, 2, 9, 16, 23 May; The Times, 6, 7, 10, 12 May; Bucks Gazette, 21, 28 May, 9 July 1831; Davis, 87; Stooks Smith, 21.
  • 23. PP (1831), xvi. 44-45, 84.
  • 24. Ibid. (1831-2), xxxviii. 43-45; Bucks Gazette, 3 Dec. 1831.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxvii. 142; Bucks Gazette, 25 Feb., 10 Mar.; The Times, 7 Mar. 1832.
  • 26. Davis, 109, 218-19; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 96, 218-19; PP (1842), vii. 467.