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:

rising to about 200 in 18311


802 (1821); 975 (1831)2


7 Mar. 1820SIR ISAAC COFFIN, bt.74
 Lionel William John Manners36
 Arthur Caesar Manners36
9 June 1826RICHARD SHARP110
 Lionel William John Tollemache71
 Felix Thomas Tollemache71
 TOLLEMACHE and TOLLEMACHE vice Sharp and Williams, on petition, 22 Feb. 1827 
31 July 1830MICHAEL BRUCE68
 Algernon Gray Tollemache64
 Felix Thomas Tollemache64

Main Article

Ilchester, a small market town situated on ‘a flat luxuriant soil’ on the south bank of the River Ivel (or Yeo), had been an important fortified settlement in Roman and medieval times, and still laid claim to being the county town. Since the seventeenth century, however, its economy had been in decline, and by 1830 it was described as ‘an inconsiderable town ... mean in appearance’. There was a large ‘rural district in the parish beyond the town’, and the latter occupied only 35 of the 735 acres. It was reported in 1831 that of the 222 resident families, 60 were chiefly employed in agriculture, 107 in trade, manufactures and handicrafts and 55 in miscellaneous occupations. The only significant industry, thread lace manufacturing, had ‘fallen into decay’, and Yeovil, less than five miles away, was a more flourishing commercial centre. A temporary stimulus was provided in the 1820s and 1830s by the town’s location on the London to Exeter highway, which brought in some business from travellers, but this ceased with the advent of the railway, which bypassed Ilchester. Its status as the county town rested on the facts that the county court and the county elections were held there, and it was also the site of the county gaol, a ‘massive building’ on the north bank of the river, which achieved great notoriety in the early 1820s when the radical agitator Henry Hunt*, an inmate, publicized its unhealthy conditions and the brutal regime imposed by the governor. By 1831, a Taunton newspaper observed that it had ‘long been matter of regret’ that important county business was still conducted in such an ‘insulated town’ in ‘so ineligible a locality’.3

The constituency boundary became a matter of dispute in the 1820s, until a Commons committee of 1830 confirmed that it was coextensive with the parish.4 The franchise was vested in the bailiff, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, and 12 other capital burgesses of the corporation, who were chosen by the existing body from among the resident inhabitants but were not required thereafter to be resident, as well as the potwallopers.5 Sir William Manners† of Buckminster, Leicestershire, had been the main proprietor in the town since 1802, spending a total of £73,000 on property by 1828, which included £43,000 for the lordship of the manor.6 His practice of evicting tenants who did not vote according to his wishes and demolishing their dwellings enabled him to reduce the electorate to about 60 in 1806 and establish full control over the borough. In 1812 he was paid £5,000 for one of the seats by the Whig George Philips* of Manchester, who recalled that ‘he wrote a letter to the electors commanding them to return me and said he would have no processions, or cockades, or any such nonsense’.7 Manners’s ruthless methods created an opportunity for the Whig boroughmonger the 3rd earl of Darlington to gain a foothold by forming an alliance with the corporation, which in 1818 leased to him common land in an area known as the Mead. Darlington used this to build cottages to accommodate at token rents many of the tenants evicted by Manners, who had been reduced to living in the workhouse, and in this way the Manners interest was overcome at the 1818 general election. In an extraordinary display of spite, Manners retaliated by emptying the workhouse (which he had leased to the corporation), casting 163 men, women and children onto the streets, where they were forced to live in cabins.8 His conduct was so shocking that it became the subject of a parliamentary debate, 2 Apr. 1819. Presumably some of the inmates were housed in the two blocks of tenements, each with between 20 and 30 rooms, which Darlington subsequently erected in another part of the town.9 In 1820 the Yellows, represented by Darlington’s candidates, the sitting Member Sir Isaac Coffin, a retired naval officer, and the prominent civil lawyer Stephen Lushington, comfortably defeated the Blues, represented by Manners’s sons Lionel and Arthur. Manners later admitted that the opposition to his interest had devalued his property by £30,000.10

Following a public meeting at the town hall, 24 July, a deputation presented an address to Queen Caroline, 31 July 1820, congratulating her on her return to the country to face her accusers and expressing their ‘deep-rooted abhorrence of the attempts to vilify and traduce’ her character. The inhabitants petitioned the Commons to restore her name to the liturgy, 24 Jan. 1821.11 Manners, who assumed the surname Tollemache and the courtesy title of Lord Huntingtower in 1821, when his mother succeeded as Countess Dysart, was determined to recover his position and gathered evidence about the corrupt practices used by his opponents. At the Somerset assizes in 1822 he ‘received no less than 16 penalties of £500 each’ under the Bribery Act against voters in Darlington’s interest, and indictments were issued against the earl’s two principal agents.12 In 1825 an advertisement placed in the local press announced:

All absent Ilchester parishioners are invited to return to that borough immediately, as they cannot vote at the ensuing election without a six months’ residence. The lord of that manor will give them work, if they want it; will find them houses with good gardens, and keep them cows in the large rich pastures adjoining the town, kept in hand for that purpose, where one hundred cows are already kept, and where forty more can be kept.13

The rivalry between Huntingtower and Darlington had the effect of restoring Ilchester’s electorate to something approaching its level in the 1790s. At the 1826 general election Darlington’s candidates, the lawyers Richard Sharp and John Williams, triumphed over Huntingtower’s sons Lionel and Felix. Eight of those who voted for the Yellows were labelled by Huntingtower’s steward, William Atter, as ‘turncoats’; while of the corporators it appears that eight supported the Yellows and three the Blues.14 It was immediately reported that a petition would be presented against the return ‘on the ground of excessive bribery, and of partiality in the returning officer [James Trent] having received the votes of 81 persons belonging to other parishes out of the borough’. In the event, the petition wisely avoided allegations of bribery and concentrated solely on the question of the eligibility of many of Darlington’s tenants to vote. The resulting Commons committee, which sat for five days in February 1827, heard that no trace survived of the ancient town wall, but that jurisdiction had been granted on the basis of its boundary. Evidence was adduced from the Domesday Book, maps, deeds and charters, together with the testimony of jury members at the court leet who had perambulated the town at various times, to show that the original boundary did not entirely correspond with the present parish and, crucially, that it excluded the Mead. It was also argued that one of Darlington’s tenements known as the Rookery, which was undeniably within the borough, only qualified for one vote as it had a common outside staircase. The committee divided eight to five in favour of the petitioners, and the Tollemache brothers were seated in place of Sharp and Williams.15 A Whig observer, Thomas Creevey*, attributed the outcome to poor management at the time of the committee’s appointment:

None of our people would go down to begin with, to help make a committee on account of Sharp’s unpopularity, thus in what is called striking the committee, that is in reducing the 47 to 13, there could not have been a man of the commonest sense to act for Lord Darlington, for they left on Lord Mount Charles, Sir E. Kerrison and another of the royal household, knowing as they must have done the king’s hostility to Darlington, and as they ought to have done, that [Huntingtower] gave these very Ilchester seats formerly to the king, who named Sheridan and [Michael Angelo] Taylor to fill them [in 1807].

According to Creevey, Darlington’s expenditure on building his interest at Ilchester had amounted to ‘about £40,000’.16 Atter reported to Huntingtower in the autumn of 1826 that ‘the Yellows receive tradesmen 18s. and the labourers 12s. per week’ from Darlington, and recommended that similar support be given to the Blues; this advice was apparently not followed. Some of Huntingtower’s labourers were discharged soon afterwards, despite being ‘the truest to the Blue party’, and Atter urged that outside employment be found for them to keep their loyalty. At least four of the ‘turncoats’ were evicted. After the petition, Huntingtower was called upon to pay ‘election money’ of ‘£30 a man, called duck and green peas’.17

The inhabitants sent petitions to Parliament against Catholic emancipation, 9 Feb., 9 Mar. 1829.18 Darlington, who became marquess of Cleveland in 1827, switched his allegiance from the Whigs to the Wellington ministry in 1828 and directly requested a dukedom from the premier in July 1830; the reply was non-commital.19 At the general election later that month one of the sitting Members, Felix Tollemache, stood with his brother Algernon, a newcomer to the borough, while Darlington’s candidates were James Hope Vere, a Scottish landowner, and Michael Bruce, the renowned adventurer. A major confrontation between the rival interests was clearly anticipated. On their arrival, Hope Vere and Bruce were reportedly

escorted into the town by such a group as requires the pencil of Hogarth to delineate ... First - a veteran of the old school, in stature about 5 feet without shoes, in yellow garb, mounted on a milk-white charger; next a miller, bearing the standard of defiance (a yellow flag), and a band of music, playing ‘well done Yellows - my brave fellows’, etc. etc.; then 60 spruce, modest virgins, marshalled in order two and two, all in white (emblems of purity), having straw bonnets with yellow knots, and yellow belts round their waists; these were followed by upwards of 50 potwallopers in similar order, to appearance as bold as Turpin, with countenances presaging victory; then next in order were the capital burgesses of the borough, mounted on foaming steeds, high-crested and valiant for combat, smiling contempt on the opponents within their leer; and lastly, the gentlemen candidates with their carriage without horses, drawn by 20 browsy matrons, gripping a waggon line as a substitute for harness, followed by as many spinning boys to wing the dust from their roquelaures.

By contrast, Felix and Algernon Tollemach arrived the next day ‘without any pompous parade or ostentation’, and they ‘paid a friendly visit to the real voters ... principally his lordship’s tenants’.20 On being nominated by the Rev. Thomas Rees and John Jones, Felix denied the allegation circulated against him that his vote for Catholic emancipation had been unprincipled, while Algernon promised to ‘attend diligently to his duties in Parliament and ... uphold the rights of the country’. Hope Vere and Bruce, who were introduced by the surgeon William Shorland, a prominent figure in the corporation, and the blacksmith Roderick Greenland, declared their commitment to ‘civil and religious liberty’. Polling was unusually prolonged, extending into a second day as every vote was scrutinized, and ‘the blood of party feeling frequently rose to fever heat’. At the end of the first day the Tollemaches had a ‘small majority’, but after a delay in the proceedings the following morning, when a number of persons tendering their votes were ‘rejected by the returning officer in consequence of their not living in what is considered to be the borough’, the poll was closed at midday and the ‘Yellow party’ declared the winners by four votes. In returning thanks, Bruce made ‘happy allusions to Magna Charta, the banishment of the Stuarts, and other points on which our constitution is founded’, and noted that he had been ‘met in a manner never before heard of - I was drawn into this town by women’. Hope Vere claimed that the votes cast for their opponents ‘came through fear, and that they wished us well’. Privately, he admitted that the contest had been ‘very severe’, but maintained that there were ‘45 more votes for us which we were obliged to decline till they are more closely examined into’. He observed that Huntingtower had ‘terribly ill used the inhabitants’ and was informed that ‘in the ... time he has possessed the property of the borough it has cost him nearly £200,000 ... It is impossible to account for [his] conduct but by insanity’.21 A petition was presented against the return, and though Hope Vere was assured that he and Bruce were ‘not in much danger’, he found the lengthy committee procedure ‘wearying and anxious’. It was argued that the returning officer, Richard Parfitt, had improperly allowed ‘nearly a dozen votes’, some of them from residents of the Rookery tenement, whose eligibility was again challenged, and others from residents of the Mead who had been moved into the borough less than six months before the election. However, after sitting for eight days in December 1830, the committee decided on this occasion that the Mead was within the borough, as it coincided with the parish boundary, and that the Rookery votes were legal. The sitting Members were therefore confirmed in their seats.22

Cleveland and his Members adhered to the Wellington ministry until its fall in November 1830, but his request to be made a knight of the Garter was not met by the outgoing premier and he promptly began to rebuild bridges with his old Whig colleagues.23 Hope Vere and Bruce were accordingly instructed to vote for the Grey ministry’s reform bill, although it proposed the total disfranchisement of Ilchester, and Cleveland even offered to turn out his Members at once in favour of ministerial nominees. Creevey thought there had never been ‘such palpable bidding for a dukedom from a government’.24 There are no newspaper accounts of events in Ilchester during the general election of April 1831, but Atter’s memorandum states that the government ‘sent down’ Lushington and the Catholic Edward Petre, a Yorkshire landowner. Since this ‘brace of gentlemen’ supported the reform bill, which was ‘in direct opposition to the interests of the voters’, Felix Tollemache and his brother Frederick also offered, only to find that the voters ‘must have been bribed by promise of money, more or less’, as they ‘had said they would vote blue ... the day before the election’, but the canvass showed 110 for the Yellows and only 60 for the Blues. Lushington and Petre were returned unopposed.25

Ilchester, which contained 248 houses and paid £213 in assessed taxes, was placed 35th in the list of the smallest English boroughs compiled for the revised reform bill of December 1831, and it was duly disfranchised in 1832, becoming a polling centre for the Western division of Somerset. From Cleveland’s point of view this was doubtless a sacrifice worth making, as he received his coveted dukedom from Grey’s government in 1833. It was reported in 1840 that Ilchester had ‘recently been much improved by new buildings’ and that the loss of its franchise had ‘added much to the respectable appearance of the town’, but the Reform Act, followed by the closure of the gaol in 1843, effectively ended its pretensions to county town status.26

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 537.
  • 2. Ibid. (1831), xvi. 287. The higher figures of 994 and 1,095 respectively (VCH Som. ii. 349) include the inmates of the gaol, which was situated on the north bank of the River Yeo but considered to be part of the parish of Ilchester (ibid. iii. 179).
  • 3. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1822-3), 445; (1830), 711; Robson’s Som. Dir. (1839), 102, 103; Gen. Dir. Som. (1840), 192-4; PP (1831), xvi. 259; (1835), xxiv. 1289; Taunton Courier, 6 July 1831; VCH Som. iii. 182-91.
  • 4. PP (1835), xxiv. 1289.
  • 5. Som. RO D/B/il 5 records the election of burgesses and bailiffs only until 1818.
  • 6. Tollemache (Dysart) mss 72, ‘memorandum on Ilchester elections’.
  • 7. Warws. RO MI 247, Philips Mems. ii. 110.
  • 8. J. Cox, Hist. Ilchester, 220-2.
  • 9. VCH Som. iii. 196.
  • 10. Western Flying Post, 13 Mar. 1820; Tollemache mss 72.
  • 11. The Times, 1 Aug. 1820; CJ, lxxvi. 5.
  • 12. The Times, 19 Aug.; Dorset RO, Anglesey mss D/ANG/B5/31, Castleman to Anglesey, 31 Oct. 1822.
  • 13. Bath and Cheltenham Gazette, 18 Oct. 1825.
  • 14. Western Flying Post, 12 June 1826; Tollemache mss 72, 73.
  • 15. Bath and Cheltenham Gazette, 13 June 1826; CJ, lxxxii. 19, 118, 128, 129, 161, 170, 174, 210, 217; Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 22 Feb. 1827; Tollemache mss 73 is a handwritten account of the committee’s proceedings.
  • 16. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 22 Feb. 1827.
  • 17. Tollemache mss 71, Atter to Huntingtower, 16, 25 Oct., 3, 6 Nov., to [Finlay?], 26 Dec. 1826, to Huntingtower, 16 Oct. 1827.
  • 18. CJ, lxxxiv. 115; LJ, lxi. 16.
  • 19. Wellington mss WP1/971/16; 990/12; 1088/4; 1126/4.
  • 20. Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 2 Aug. 1830.
  • 21. Sherborne Jnl. 5 Aug.; Bristol Mirror, 14 Aug. 1830; Hopetoun mss 167, f. 157.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxvi. 45, 46, 152, 153, 183; Hopetoun mss 167, ff. 189, 206, 208; Tollemache mss 72.
  • 23. Wellington mss WP1/1152/6; 1154/45.
  • 24. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 30 Mar. 1831.
  • 25. Tollemache mss 72.
  • 26. Gen. Dir. Som. 192-4; Cox, 174, 175.