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 inhabitant householders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 510 in 18311

Number of voters:

492 in 1831


3,296 (1821); 3,143 (1831)2


16 June 1826JOSIAH JOHN GUEST331
 Ralph Sneyd195
5 May 1831SIR GEORGE WARRENDER, bt.319
 Josiah John Guest259
 John Thomas Mayne8

Main Article

Honiton, a market town situated beside the River Otter, in the east of the county on the Exeter to London road, consisted ‘principally of one street, nearly a mile in length, containing many good houses’, which had mostly been built since the fires of 1747 and 1765. It had ‘long been celebrated’ as a centre for the manufacture of fine lace, which was also carried on in the surrounding villages, but though still quite prosperous and benefiting from royal patronage the industry had passed its peak and faced competition from the rise of factory-based production elsewhere. Woollen cloth manufacturing, formerly the other mainstay of the economy, had been in decline since the 1780s and by 1822 only one serge maker remained in the town. Minor industries included shoemaking and the production of ‘a coarse and rather primitive type of brown earthenware’. A market house was built in the 1820s and Honiton was particularly noted for its trade in butter, of which ‘great quantities’ were sent to London.3

The borough boundary was not clearly defined but it was said to encompass only part of the parish of Honiton, including ‘nearly the whole of the town’. Some political influence had traditionally been exercised by the lord of the manor, who appointed the portreeve, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, owned the two principal inns, the Dolphin and the Golden Lion, and controlled grazing rights on meadow and pastureland. However, the lordship had changed hands several times in recent years and, following the death of Arthur Champernowne of Dartington Hall in 1819, it became the subject of a chancery suit and was ‘for many years ... in the hands of a receiver’. With approximately three-quarters of adult males entitled to vote, Honiton politics were increasingly dominated by certain ‘jobbing ... attornies’, whose activities reinforced the borough’s reputation for shameless venality. Their method was to introduce outside candidates, who were sometimes recommended by the government, negotiating a price with them and ‘bargaining with the voters at so much per head and receiving a sum for the purpose from the candidate after the time for petitioning against the election’. It was reckoned in 1830 that £4,000 was required to secure a seat, and the standard payment to voters was apparently six guineas. Through this system, ‘some snug offices were obtained by the resident jobbers and many candidates ruined’. Christopher Flood and his partner Philip Mules, whose influence was such that it was ‘a common mode of expression to speak of "Mules’s party" or "Flood’s men"’, controlled the return of one Member, while another Tory attorney, James Townsend, returned the second. There was an independent or ‘third party’, represented by Courtenay and Lewis Gidley and Isaac Cox, which had some connection with religious Dissent.4

In 1820, as in 1818, Townsend acted for Peregrine Cust, a son of Lord Brownlow, and Flood and Mules handled the candidature of Samuel Crawley, a Bedfordshire landowner; both were supporters of Lord Liverpool’s ministry and anti-Catholics. It was reported that Honiton would be ‘warmly contested’ as the Russia merchant William Busk*, Whig Member for Barnstaple in 1812, had agreed to stand for the third party. Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary and a neighbouring landowner, wrote to Flood expressing his wish that ‘every ... encouragement’ should be given to Cust, who was pledged to ‘uphold the constitution ... in church and state’. It is not known if this intervention prompted the two Tory groups to co-operate, but in the event Busk withdrew and Cust and Crawley were returned unopposed.5 On 15 Nov. a day of public festivities was organized to celebrate the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline. After ‘village sports’, dinners were given at several inns while ‘the whole of the labouring classes assembled in the open streets’, where they ‘shared five hogsheads of cider and strong beer’ and received bread, cheese, pipes and tobacco. Later, a ‘green bag mounted on a high pole’ was escorted by ‘an immense procession’ to Church Hill, where it was ‘committed to the flames’. Fireworks and an illumination followed in the evening and the church bells rang for five days. In December 1820 a public letter signed by 11 inhabitants, including Cox, condemned the conduct of the portreeve who, without summoning a meeting, had fixed the borough seal to a loyal address to the king in which the queen’s supporters were accused of ‘high treason’.6 The portreeve and inhabitants sent petitions to Parliament for repeal of the Insolvent Debtors Acts, 24 Mar., 16 Apr., and of the coal duties, 18 Apr. 1823, 1 Mar. 1824.7 Anti-slavery petitions from the inhabitants were presented to the Commons, 12 Apr., 11 June 1824, and the portreeve and inhabitants petitioned both Houses against Catholic claims, 18, 19 Apr. 1825.8

Important changes took place in the early 1820s in the position of the local election agents. The connection between the Gidleys and Cox ended (Lewis Gidley subsequently figured among the Tories) and Cox and his law partner, Robert Aberdein, assumed responsibility for organizing the third party. From 1823 they were using their election account to make ‘loans’ of between a few shillings and a few pounds to the ‘poor people’ of the borough, who were required to write notes promising to repay the money ‘on demand’. Townsend’s reputation had meantime been damaged by the failure in 1822 of the East Devon Bank, in which he was a partner, and it appears that Flood and Mules seized the opportunity to recruit many of his former supporters in an attempt to gain control of the return of both Members. In January 1825, after Cust had announced that he would not stand at the next general election, Crawley canvassed the borough with Henry Alexander*, an East India Company Director, accompanied by Mules, Richard Blake of the Dolphin, Captain Basleigh, Lewis Gidley and others. However, Josiah John Guest, a very wealthy ironmaster from Merthyr Tydfil, simultaneously conducted a successful canvass on behalf of the third party. Before his departure, Guest’s friends paraded the streets with flags bearing mottos such as ‘No Coalition’, ‘Freedom of Election’, ‘Honour and Honesty’ and ‘The Welcome Guest’, and it was reported that ‘more voters joined in it than in any display of the kind on record’; he pledged himself to appear at the poll. Alexander, whose reception had been lukewarm, withdrew soon afterwards and offered for Barnstaple.9 At the dissolution in June 1826 Flood and Mules’s arrangements were upset by Crawley’s sudden decision to retire. Mules was absent from Honiton at the time, possibly searching for a second candidate, and in the temporary vacuum thus created Townsend, acting with his fellow attorney Daniel Gould, entered into discussions with some of Cust’s and Crawley’s former supporters, as a result of which Harry Baines Lott, Flood’s banking partner, was invited to stand. This marked the emergence of a Whig-Tory combination which became known as ‘the whim sheet party’, because ‘they were so few as to be able to be covered by one’. Lott immediately began his canvass, claiming to be ‘unsupported and unconnected with any party’ and pledging himself to ‘stand to the last’. A poster appeared in which his local roots were emphasized and the voters urged to ‘support Mr. Lott and he will support us and our dear children to the utmost of his power’. Despite Lott’s intervention, Mules persisted in bringing forward another candidate, Ralph Sneyd, a Staffordshire landowner, who had been introduced to him by a London agent named Groom. Mules and Sneyd arrived in Honiton on a Sunday morning, ‘just as the inhabitants were proceeding to church’, and Sneyd, after apologizing for addressing them on the Sabbath, declared himself to be ‘a firm supporter’ of government. Guest entered the town the next day and was met by his supporters, who drew his carriage through the streets ‘amid the cheers of a large portion of the population’. He maintained that his principles were ‘founded upon the broad base of manly independence, unshackled by a pledge upon any particular question and unchecked by any party prejudice’. In a poster headed ‘Popery!’, Aberdein was said to be a ‘Calvinistic Dissenter’ and the electors were advised to ascertain Guest’s views on Catholic emancipation. Although some of Guest’s friends suspected that Lott and Sneyd’s candidatures represented a concerted Tory effort to thwart the third party, the Flood-Mules party seems genuinely to have been in a state of disarray. Indeed, Guest’s return was ‘considered certain’ and the contest seemed to be between Lott and Sneyd. Guest was nominated by Cox, who called on the electors to ‘assert ... the independence of the borough’ and ‘prove to the world the falsehood of the slanders that had been heaped upon them’. Lott was introduced by Captain Daniel Pring and Sneyd by Mules. Guest declared that he was ‘a friend to civil and religious liberty’, Lott affirmed his ‘attachment to our glorious constitution’ and Sneyd described himself as ‘a Tory, but not a bigoted one’. The show of hands for Guest was ‘universal’ but the portreeve, Basleigh, could not decide between the support for Lott and Sneyd and the latter demanded a poll. At the end of the day, Guest led by 64 votes to Lott’s 37 and Sneyd’s 35, and thereafter Guest and Lott extended their advantage; Sneyd resigned at noon on the fifth day. In a published address Lott acknowledged that having offered ‘at so late a period, when your first votes were principally engaged’, he owed his success to ‘your second votes’, and while no pollbook has survived it was generally agreed that most of his split votes came from Guest’s supporters. Sneyd complained that ‘had one of my opponents and myself gone through the contest upon our respective strength’, he would have been returned, and he announced his ‘fixed determination’ to stand again. Cox proclaimed the result to be a ‘just punishment’ for the ‘arrogance and presumption’ of Mules, who had attempted to monopolize the borough’s representation. Guest and Lott gave dinners to the voters at various inns and all three parties organized tea dances for the ladies.10

Several petitions from the Protestant Dissenters for repeal of the Test Acts were forwarded to the Commons in 1827 and to both Houses in 1828.11 The portreeve and inhabitants sent anti-Catholic petitions to Parliament, 6, 7 Mar. 1827, 14 May, but the Protestant Dissenters petitioned in favour of concession, 8 May, 13 June 1828. Certain inhabitant householders and the Unitarians presented petitions in support of emancipation, 9, 12, 27 Mar., while anti-Catholic opinion was presumably represented in the petition from East Devon which was presented by Lott, 23 Feb. 1829.12 Lott continued to oppose emancipation and Guest to support it. The portreeve and inhabitants petitioned the Lords for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 18 June 1830.13 At the general election that summer Sneyd declined to stand and Flood and Mules introduced in his place Sir George Warrender, a wealthy Scottish landowner and former Tory minister, who was now ‘attached to the Huskisson party’. During his canvass, Warrender found that allusions to his service in Lord Liverpool’s government caused ‘no responsive chord to vibrate in the breasts of those he addressed’, but his promises to ‘oppose every unnecessary expenditure and ... support a reduction of taxation and not to accept again any office or emolument’, were ‘repeatedly cheered’. In a published address, he expressed his determination to attach himself to ‘no party but that of my country’ and emphasized that he was a man of ‘independent fortune’. Guest offered again and claimed that the ‘pre-eminent success’ of his canvass demonstrated local approval of his conduct in the Commons, where he had sought to ‘reduce the taxes and expenditure of the country, not from factious opposition to ... ministers but from a conscientious desire to discharge my duty as an honest and independent representative of the people’. Lott’s decision not to stand was later attributed to the fact that he ‘could not afford to contest the borough’ against Guest and Warrender. The ‘speedy arrival of a third candidate was announced ... by Messrs. Gould and Townsend’, but no one appeared and this became ‘the occasion of some humorous ... squibs’. Guest and Warrender were returned unopposed and no report of the formal proceedings has been found. Afterwards, Warrender expressed support for a ‘revision of the whole system of taxation’ in order to ‘remove much of the burthen from the industrious classes’.14

The portreeve, Lewis Gidley, summoned a ‘numerous and highly respectable’ meeting of the inhabitants, 18 Nov., when Lott, Cox and Townsend were among the advocates of an anti-slavery petition which was agreed and presented to Parliament, 25, 26 Nov. 1830.15 In December 1830, at the time of the ‘Swing’ riots, special constables were sworn in as a precautionary measure. Aberdein instigated a public meeting to ‘inquire into the state of the labouring classes and provide employment’ for those in need of it, at which resolutions were carried expressing satisfaction with ‘the good order of their poorer townsfolk’.16 Petitions for repeal of the coastwise coal duty were sent to both Houses, 7 Feb. 1831.17 There was an attempt that month to organize a petition against parliamentary reform, but it was abandoned. The Grey ministry’s bill proposed to reduce Honiton’s representation to one seat, and the £10 household franchise provision was set eventually to reduce the size of the electorate as the existing voters, who retained their right for life, died off. It was claimed that many reformers were ‘so alarmed at the measure ... that they have turned tail’, and though Cox, in a letter to the press, maintained that most of the inhabitants accepted the borough’s partial disfranchisement as part of the general plan of reform, he admitted that ‘a great many of the poorer classes look upon this as an infringement of their vested rights’. A petition from the inhabitants in favour of the bill was forwarded to the Commons, 29 Mar. 1831.18 Whereas Guest supported the bill, Warrender opposed its second reading but favoured a less sweeping measure and voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment. At the ensuing dissolution Guest offered again and conducted an apparently successful canvass, after which he affirmed his commitment to ‘liberal principles’ and ‘a system of economy and retrenchment in every branch of the public expenditure’, and expressed his ‘determination to stand or fall by the reform bill’. He regretted the probable loss of one of Honiton’s seats but believed that ‘impartial justice required this sacrifice’ and that his constituents would appreciate ‘the strict integrity of my political life’. However, a poster appeared in which he was accused of being indifferent to local interests and of being ‘the tool of a designing set of radicals, who are seeking to subvert both church and state’. According to the borough’s historian, Guest’s prospects were also damaged by Cox and Aberdein’s refusal to ‘give the poor voters the customary six guineas’. Mules announced that Warrender would also stand and urged the voters not to pledge support to any candidate who would not promise to protect their privileges. Warrender explained that he was opposed to ‘rash disfranchisement’ and argued that the diversity of opinion on various issues showed that Honiton could not be ‘properly represented by one Member’. Gould and John Honywood Townsend had meanwhile organized a requisition to Lott inviting him to stand ‘free of expense’, and after his canvass Lott promised to poll to the last man and disclaimed ‘any coalition or junction of any kind’. It was said that Warrender and Lott might be ‘termed moderate reformers’.19 Guest was nominated by Aberdein and the butter factor William Smark, Warrender by Captain Stephen Harness and Mules, and Lott by Basleigh and John Honywood Townsend. The show of hands was called in favour of Guest and Warrender, but Lott demanded a poll. A ‘severer contest was scarcely ever carried on’ and legal representatives made ‘the most rigid scrutiny ... of every vote’. At the end of the first day Lott led by 126 votes to Warrender’s 118 and Guest’s 106, but on the second day Warrender overtook Lott and the position thereafter remained unchanged. The proceedings were enlivened by the arrival of John Thomas Mayne, a radical barrister who had withdrawn from the contest at Exeter. He ‘harangued the multitude daily in the most violent strain’ and towards the end of the third day declared himself a candidate, presumably for no other reason than to ‘entail additional expense’ on Warrender and Lott; he polled two votes that evening. It was reported that Flood and Mules, ‘by way of revenging their ... defeat’ in 1826, had ‘determined to retaliate upon Guest by prevailing upon many of their plumpers to split with Lott’, while Lott’s plumpers, who were ‘few in number’, reciprocated for Warrender. On the fourth day Guest publicly remonstrated with Lott and called on him ‘as a man of honour’ to withdraw, which he refused to do. By the morning of the fifth day ‘the number of votes appeared to be quite exhausted’ and Warrender and Lott were declared elected and chaired. Afterwards, the supporters of the three candidates paraded the streets and some of those who had broken their promises to vote for Guest were ‘burned in effigy’. It was later stated that 492 had voted. In a published address, Guest claimed to have been the victim of an ‘unnatural coalition’ and argued that his defeat did not reflect local opinion on reform. Aberdein immediately organized a requisition inviting him to stand on the next vacancy, and after canvassing the borough in June Guest accepted.20

Warrender pronounced ‘a short funeral oration over the borough of Honiton’ in the Commons, 29 July 1831. He described it as ‘a very flourishing town’ with ‘above 300 £10 houses’, observed that many of his constituents were ‘entitled to all the respect due to gentlemen’, as ‘many of them are naval and military officers’, and maintained that no place ‘less deserves to be called a close or nomination borough’ for ‘no individual ... has the control or command over five votes’. He did not divide against its inclusion in schedule B of the reintroduced reform bill, but hoped the Lords would rectify matters. Although a petition from the inhabitants for the bill’s speedy passage was sent to the Lords, 4 Oct., when it was rejected the bells were reportedly rung all day ‘on account of [Honiton’s] narrow escape from schedule B’.21 That opinion on the issue was divided is confirmed by the evidence of a Whig diarist, who learned from Warrender in November that he had excused himself on health grounds from visiting the borough and that he feared his opposition to the bill was ‘putting him in the wrong box’ with his constituents.22 By the criteria adopted in the revised bill of December 1831, Honiton, which contained 709 houses and paid £1,068 in assessed taxes, was placed 97th in the list of the smallest English boroughs, thus removing it from schedule B.

The boundary commissioners reported that the town had expanded in all directions, particularly to the east and west, and they recommended that the boundary be extended to cover the whole parish. In 1837 there were 455 registered electors, of whom 372 were potwallopers; by 1865 only 53 potwallopers survived in an electorate of 279.23 At the general election of 1832 Warrender and Lott retired and Guest chose to stand for Merthyr Tydfil, leaving a Conservative and a Liberal to be returned ahead of another Conservative. The Conservatives usually dominated the representation until 1857, from which time it was shared. The expanded boundary increased the influence of the lord of the manor, whose property became a valuable electoral commodity, and members of the Cox, Flood, Mules and Townsend families continued to operate as election brokers, ensuring that Honiton’s reputation for venality persisted until its disfranchisement in 1868.24

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 76-77.
  • 2. Ibid. (1831), xvi. 290; (1831-2), xxxvi. 76-77. The figure for 1821 relates to the parish, that for 1831 to the borough.
  • 3. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 214; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 363-5; W. Hoskins, Devon, 141-2, 412-13; A. Farquharson, Hist. Honiton, 55-64; J. Coxhead, Honiton, 45-55.
  • 4. PP (1830-1), x. 77-78; (1831-2), xxxviii. 125; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 311-12; Farquharson, 7, 49, 52-53; Devon RO 55/6/31/7; Honiton Election Placards, ‘A Looker On’, 4 June 1826; St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 195, T. to J. Gladstone, 28 June; Western Times, 6 Nov. 1830.
  • 5. Devon RO, Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Flood, 29 Feb.; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 4, 11 Mar. 1820; Farquharson, 41.
  • 6. Alfred, 21 Nov. 1820, 2 Jan. 1821.
  • 7. CJ, lxxviii. 211, 227; lxxix. 110; LJ, lv. 589, 629.
  • 8. CJ, lxxix. 281, 482; lxxx. 320; LJ, lvii. 573-4.
  • 9. Devon RO 282M/Misc. 2; Alfred, 18, 25 Jan. 1825; Election Placards, ‘A Looker On’, 4 June 1826; Farquharson, 51-52.
  • 10. Election Placards, Cox, 3, 18 June; Lott, 3, 5, 14, 16 June; Sneyd, 4, 6, 16 June; Guest, 7 June; ‘A Looker On’; ‘Popery!’; ‘A Word to the Wise’; Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss, Agar Ellis to Sneyd, 7, 10 June; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 10, 17 June; Alfred, 13, 20 June, 4 July; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 15 June 1826; Besley’s Exeter News, 7 May 1831; Farquharson, 41, 51-53.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxii. 505, 528, 545; lxxxiii. 45, 96; LJ, lx. 81, 125.
  • 12. CJ, lxxxii. 281; lxxxiii. 332, 350; lxxxiv. 114; LJ, lix. 139; lx. 542; lxi. 181, 298.
  • 13. LJ, lxii. 740
  • 14. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 3, 10, 31 July, 7 Aug.; Western Times, 10 July, 7 Aug. 1830; Besley’s Exeter News, 7 May 1831.
  • 15. Western Times, 27 Nov. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 132; LJ, lxiii. 131.
  • 16. N. Devon Jnl. 30 Dec. 1830.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxvi. 217; LJ, lxiii. 209.
  • 18. N. Devon Jnl. 10, 17 Feb., 31 Mar.; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 10 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 456.
  • 19. Alfred, 26 Apr.; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 28 Apr., 5 May; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 Apr.; West Country Stud. Lib. (Exeter) Sf/324.61/HON/COL U, ‘An Old Voter’; Mules, 23 Apr.; Guest, 23 Apr.; Lott, 24, 26, 28 Apr.; Warrender, 27 Apr. 1831; Farquharson, 41, 49.
  • 20. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 5, 12 May; Western Times, 7 May; Besley’s Exeter News, 7 May; Alfred, 10 May; West Country Stud. Lib. (Exeter) Sf/324.61/HON/COL U, Guest, 5 May, 25 June 1831; ‘A Plumper for Guest’; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 534.
  • 21. LJ, lxiii. 1045; N. Devon Jnl. 20 Oct. 1831.
  • 22. Hatherton diary, 20 Nov. 1831.
  • 23. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 125-6; Farquharson, 50, 80.
  • 24. Farquharson, 42-43, 49, 52-53; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 167-8.