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

Estimated number qualified to vote:


Number of voters:

752 in 1830


12,508 (1821); 15,387 (1831)


 Richard Sharp236
10 June 1826JOHN WELLS375
 Wyndham Lewis105
 Philip Rawlings156
 William George Tyssen Daniel Tyssen6
 Henry Winchester195
 George Simson 

Main Article

Maidstone, a large and venal borough, was one of the most highly politicized constituencies in Britain: it had witnessed contests at every general election (and all but one by-election) since 1715, resulting in a plethora of printed pollbooks.1 Its prosperity was based on trade in hops and fruit, especially to markets in London, 35 miles to the north-west, and about half the electors were employed as artisans, with the paper-making industry being another major contributor to the town’s thriving economy.2 Proximity to the capital and its role as the site of county meetings heightened the political atmosphere. Writing to Lady Holland about one called to agree an address of condolence and congratulation to George IV, 16 Apr. 1820, the 9th earl of Thanet of Hothfield Place hoped that ‘we shall not be too numerous for the town hall and be obliged to adjourn to the street, as sometimes happens on other occasions, for the Maidstone mob is rather capricious’.3 The borough was divided between the Tories or Purples, who controlled the corporation and generally aligned themselves with the Liverpool ministry, and a vociferous body of Whigs or Blues, whose interests sometimes coincided with those of radical tradesmen or the sizeable Dissenting communities. Maidstone had a reputation for popular participation, numerous contests and a high degree of partisan voting behaviour. Since the late eighteenth century there had been high turnouts and falling numbers of split and floating voters in parliamentary elections, a trend that was even more marked in municipal ones.4 Although there was a relative diminution in party strife in the late 1820s, contests occurred at all the general elections in this period and there were also four major contests for seats on the common council. There were polls at the election of the mayor in 1820, 1821, 1823, 1825, 1830, 1831 and 1832; and the municipal corporations report of 1835 was highly critical of this additional manifestation of party political spirit, ‘which prevails with the utmost rancour and bitterness of feeling. Both parties go to the contest only with the object of showing their strength and annoying their opponents’. It also stated that

political animosities have been excited on every occasion. We have been informed that not only the tradespeople of the corporation, as a body, were employed from their being of a particular political party, but that a preference from the cause existed, to a certain extent, in the private transactions of individuals.5

A number of political clubs flourished and exerted an influence at elections, notably the Whig Inflexible Society, which was later opposed by the anti-Catholic and anti-reform Inflexibles.6 In addition, Richard James Cutbush’s broadly Whig Maidstone Gazette rivalled John Vine Hall’s Tory Maidstone Journal.7

By 1820 there had been a relative decline in the significance of electoral patrons, though some retained an influence, notably the 2nd earl of Romney of The Mote, who was also lord of the manor.8 Instead, the main factors at parliamentary elections were money and the corporation. Voters were paid set rates for plumpers and splits, and the distance they had to travel to the poll. Elections cost each candidate about £4,000 to £5,000, and it was perhaps no coincidence that three of the Members who sat during this period were bankers (Abraham Wildey Robarts, John Wells and Charles James Barnett), while two of the defeated candidates had banking interests (Wyndham Lewis* and George Simson†).9 The corporation consisted of a mayor, 12 jurats and 40 common councilmen. The freedom, which conferred the right to vote in elections for common councilmen and Members of Parliament, was obtained by birth, apprenticeship or purchase, though none of the 527 freemen admitted between 1813 and 1833 acceded by purchase.10 A group of freeholders and rated inhabitants, led by Thomas William Carter, an auctioneer, and John Arkcoll, a grocer, were repeatedly defeated in their attempts to gain admission, and measures to tighten up apprenticeship regulations were raised at courts of burghmote, 28 Oct. 1823, 27 Apr. 1826.11 Canvassing lists for 1826 among Lewis’s papers reveal that all Robarts’s ‘particular friends’ were ‘considered in poor circumstances’. However, Wells, a Tory, enjoyed the support of most of the senior figures on the corporation. Four of them were marked ‘very rich’, including Philip Corrall, who was a banker and had ‘great influence’, whereas several other members of his profession, including the Whig Thomas Atkins, had been badly affected by the collapse of the Maidstone Bank in late 1825. Another key figure was Courtney Stacey, a wealthy brewer, who was later described by Lewis as a man ‘of very great consequence’. The then mayor, John Wise, was also a brewer, and in 1835 fears were raised about four of the jurats, including two magistrates, belonging to the town’s principal brewery. The mayor handled most local business and burghmote meetings were rare, which served to encourage popular hostility towards the corporation.12

Contrary to the more usual pattern of sharing the representation, the Whigs had won both seats in 1818. Robarts offered again at the general election of 1820, but George Longman, a London stationer, retired, while Wells, the defeated Tory candidate in 1818, stood again. Although strongly anti-Catholic, he briefly withdrew because of his supporters’ temporary insistence that he pledge himself to vote against relief. Others considered as candidates in the Purple interest were William Henry Baldock of Broadway, Petham, and a Mr. Tulk of London, possibly Charles Augustus Tulk, who, however, as Member for Sudbury, subsequently proved to be a reformer. Charles Barclay* of Bury Hill, Surrey, and Thomas Law Hodges* of Hempsted Place, near Benenden, Kent, declined, but the veteran Whig, Richard ‘Conversation’ Sharp* entered as a third man.13 Robarts was proposed by Atkins and Henry Atkinson Wildes, a solicitor; Wells by Corrall and Stacey; and Sharp by Benjamin Chilly Pine, an ironmonger, and Henry Heathorn, a brewer. After a day of spirited polling, Sharp withdrew, despite being only 14 votes behind Wells.14 His friend Sir James Mackintosh*, who put his expenses at £1,500, recorded in his journal that ‘Sharp’s majority was literally bought from him in the course of the night’, but that he would not petition for fear of encumbering Robarts. Nevertheless, as Sharp had threatened, his supporters entered a petition against Wells, 11 May 1820, when petitions against Robarts and Sharp, from Corrall, Stacey and 11 others, were also lodged. But orders for their consideration were discharged, 15, 26 May, owing to informality and a failure to enter recognizances.15 The result was the closest of the last four elections before the Reform Act, with Robarts receiving support from 61 per cent of the 468 voters, Wells 53 and Sharp 50. However, the turnout was low (55 per cent), and some degree of apathy on the part of the resident freemen was shown by the fact that they comprised only 52 per cent of the voters, in comparison to the usual figure of about 60 per cent. Wells shared 69 splits with Robarts and 21 with Sharp. This difference of 48, plus Robarts’s three plumpers (Sharp received none) was larger than his final lead of 41 votes over Sharp, ‘from which it has been publicly stated that it would have been optional for the friends of Mr. Wells to have chosen either of the other candidates they pleased’. That there were only 90 cross-party splits (19 per cent of the voters) indicates the extent to which opinion was polarized. Wells’s 160 plumpers represented 64 per cent of his votes, while the 215 splits for Robarts and Sharp accounted for 75 and 91 per cent of their votes respectively.16

The mayor, John Mares, refused to chair a common hall on the Queen Caroline affair, 16 Oct. 1820, but his place was taken by James Smythe, and the meeting’s laudatory address was presented to her by Robarts, 30 Oct. Mares’s successor, Wise, called out the military to prevent illuminations on her acquittal in November, chaired a meeting which agreed a loyal address to the king, 19 Dec. 1820, and left the chair at another one, which passed a Whig address to him to dismiss his ministers at a time of prevailing distress, 1 Jan. 1821.17 Wells presented a Maidstone petition for reform of the criminal law, 17 May 1821, and another one was brought up by Stephen Lushington, 4 June 1822.18 Robarts presented a Unitarian petition for a bill to legalize their form of marriage, 17 Apr. 1822, but Sir Edward Knatchbull, the county Member, brought up one from the town’s clergy against it, 25 Apr. 1825.19 Petitions were presented by Robarts for repeal of the Insolvent Debtors Acts, 13 Mar. 1823, and by Wells against the coal duties, 7 May.20 A petition to light Maidstone with gas was entered, 19 Feb., and both Members assisted in the passage of the subsequent bill.21 Atkins and Smythe advocated the rebuilding of the dilapidated markets at courts of burghmote, 11 Apr., 28 Oct., 22 Dec. 1823, and persuaded the corporation to apply to Parliament for the necessary powers, 2 Mar. 1824. A petition was lodged to this effect, 11 Mar., and both Members again sponsored a bill, which received royal assent, 4 June 1824. The new markets were opened, 23 Mar. 1826, and despite financial problems, they proved to be an additional stimulus to the town’s commerce.22 Petitions were brought up for repeal of the duties on publicans’ licenses (by Robarts), 5 Mar. 1824, from Argles Bishop of Maidstone for alteration of the distillery laws (by Knatchbull), 29 Mar., and from the town’s butchers in favour of the hides and skins bill (by Wells), 3 May. Robarts presented an anti-slavery petition, 11 Mar. 1824, as did Wells, 28 Feb. 1826.23 The petition of the Maidstone friends of the London Missionary Society for inquiry into the prosecution of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara was brought up, 27 May 1824. Following a meeting of the inhabitants, 21 Apr. 1825, Wells presented their anti-Catholic petition, 26 Apr.24 The Maidstone Agricultural Association was established, 6 Oct. 1825, passed resolutions against alterations being made to the corn laws, 20 Apr. 1826, and on 9 May agreed a petition to the Lords on the subject, which was brought up, 12 May 1826.25

After the Whigs had obtained a writ of mandamus in king’s bench, an election finally took place to fill three vacant seats on the common council, 11 Jan. 1822. It lasted for seven days, ‘with all the ardour and spirit of a general election’, and many out-voters were brought in from great distances. Three Tories narrowly beat three Whigs, and of the 738 freemen polled, only about ten per cent did not vote for one or other of the party slates. Whig objections to their being sworn, on the grounds of their not having received the sacrament in the previous six months, were defeated in the courts.26 At a court of burghmote, 1 Nov., and meetings of non-freemen, 12, 26 Nov., a group of inhabitants argued that they had a right to be admitted as freemen under the town’s charter. Heathorn urged their case at another court, 22 Nov. 1822, but his motion for their admittance was shouted down. On that day, John Newington Hughes, a Tory, was elected as a jurat by 19 votes to five, and the ministerial side also had two others elected as common councilmen against two Whigs, with only 17 of the 377 polled casting cross-party splits.27 Legal proceedings were resumed and a court of burghmote agreed to raise a subscription among the freemen to pay the corporation’s expenses, 18 Apr. 1825. Knatchbull presented the petition of several resident householders paying scot and lot, many of whom were also freeholders and had been born in Maidstone, for inquiry into their claims to be admitted as freemen, 10 May. Under Carter’s chairmanship, a society was formed to obtain the right of voting in parliamentary elections, 30 Aug.28 Forty freemen were admitted before a severe contest for seven seats on the common council, 9 Dec. 1825. Each party put up a full slate of candidates and the ministerialist side were put under great pressure. After four days a compromise was reached whereby two Whigs withdrew in order to let in two Tories, but nevertheless the Whigs gained five seats and reduced their opponents’ majority to just one. About 85 per cent of the 615 voters supported one of the two party tickets.29

The sitting Members offered again at the general election of 1826. Wells’s commitment to the abolition of slavery had already gained him support and, after a town gathering, 26 May, over 200 freemen signed a resolution urging him to stand. Expectations of an uncontested election were disappointed by the intervention of the Welshman Wyndham Lewis as a Pink or independent Tory.30 A wealthy man, Lewis canvassed assiduously and with an open purse. He established links with the London freemen and, as in his later attempts at Maidstone, he probably tried to engage the support of the local nobility. His lists show an awareness of the strength of his opponents, but also indicate extensive bribery. He promised £10 for each plumper and £5 for each split, and was believed to have received 270 promises. He calculated that his Third Man Club had 89 members in the borough and 90 in London, and that ‘the Inflexible Club at Maidstone is supposed to be 200 strong, 100 of which are bought’.31 The efforts of his committee, headed by George Burgess, a maltster, forced the others (led by Stacey for Wells, and by Henry Collis, a builder, for Robarts) to similar exertions. Presumably expecting a crush of electors, they all requested the appointment of three clerks to take the votes in the lower hall.32 On the hustings, 10 June, Wildes and Pine nominated Robarts on the basis of his independence and proven conduct. Stacey and Mares proposed Wells, who also eschewed party connection, but opposed the idea of splitting votes with Robarts. Lewis, who was introduced by Burgess and John Reader, a baker, gave his general support to the Liverpool ministry, but spoke against Catholic relief. As returning officer, the mayor (Wise) refused to allow Carter and three others to vote. After a full day’s poll, during which 76 per cent of the electorate voted, Lewis resigned.33 Having failed to achieve his hoped for level of support, Lewis, with only 105 votes (or 17 per cent of the 634 voters), was easily defeated by Wells and Robarts (59 and 56 per cent respectively). Wells received 197 plumpers (53 per cent of his total) and Robarts 206 (58), and they shared 126 splits (or about 35 per cent of each of their total votes). Lewis managed only 28 plumpers, and although 52 freemen split for him and the other Tory candidate, another 25 split for him and Robarts. Altogether, 151 (or 24 per cent) of the freemen voted across party lines, the highest proportion in any election between 1820 and 1832. While both Wells and Robarts received about 64 per cent of their votes from Maidstone freemen, and 18 per cent each from county and London voters, Lewis, despite some concentration in his canvass on poor voters, did worse in Maidstone (50 per cent of his total) and relied far more heavily on those resident in London (35 per cent).34

Lewis’s expenses were very high, but largely ineffective: for example, of the 32 identifiable freemen on his ‘list of those who will accept donations’, six plumped for him, but 17 split with Wells and nine with Robarts.35 No accurate total can be placed on Lewis’s outgoings, but the treasurer of his committee, Robert Collens junior, a Maidstone miller, later forwarded hundreds of receipts to him, and two undated account books give totals (for this or a later election) of about £4,300 and £5,000. The items included all the usual election paraphernalia, such as pink bows, stationery, music, tavern bills and conveyances, as well as costs of the Third Man Club and the Loyal and Independent Society.36 He was tardy with most of his payments, to the particular resentment of his London committee, which continued to meet regularly at its members’ own expense.37 Thomas Green, a Ramsgate brazier, wrote of the election, that he was ‘sorry to see the conclusion. There was something wrong somewhere or the people most shamefully betray themselves in their promises’. He also recorded a rumour that Lewis wished to form a club in order to be returned at the next opportunity.38 The losing candidate’s estranged son-in-law wrote of the episode:

          Expelled from Cardiff, sad, forlorn,
          And covered with contempt and scorn,
          He tried for Maidstone, ‘mid the cry
          Of ‘damn all priests and Popery’,
          Expecting the ‘no Popery’ din,
          Was almost sure to bring him in;
          The cry was rais’d, alas! in vain,
          Our hero got kicked out again,
          He now found out how very rash
          He’d been to spend such heaps of cash;
          And felt some little degradation,
          At loss of time and reputation.39

Wells argued in the House, 16 Mar. 1829, that he had declined to endorse the ‘no Popery’ cry that would otherwise have ‘turned the scale’ against Robarts, an argument which the latter flatly denied.

After this contest, the Catholic question was the only major issue to divide opinion in Maidstone before the accession of a pro-reform government in 1830. Despite the opposition of the Whigs, an anti-Catholic petition was agreed by a large majority, 23 Feb. 1827, and was presented to the Commons by Wells, 5 Mar.40 Both Members brought up petitions from Protestant Dissenters for repeal of the Test Acts, 6, 8 June 1827, 18, 22 Feb. 1828.41 Knatchbull presented others from local proprietors against alteration of the corn laws, 2 Apr. 1827, 16 May 1828.42 After sharp polling for five seats on the common council, 23 May 1828, a compromise was reached whereby three of the five Whig candidates and two of the six Tories were returned the next day, when only seven per cent of the 265 voters had cast cross-party votes.43 Following its adoption at a court of burghmote, 23 May, Wells presented the corporation’s petition against the alehouses licensing bill, 30 May.44 He made a blood-curdling speech against the Catholics at the first meeting of the Kent Brunswick Club in Maidstone, 16 Sept. 1828. An anti-Catholic petition signed by over 2,000 inhabitants was brought up in the Commons by him, 26 Feb. 1829, and presented to the Lords, 26 Mar.45 Wells lodged hostile petitions from the minister and congregation of Providence Chapel, 26 Feb., and from the Baptists and Wesleyan Methodists, 18 Mar., but Robarts presented pro-Catholic ones from the town’s Protestant Dissenters, 11 Mar., and its resident freemen, 16 Mar.46 Newspaper accounts recorded that there were more signatures on the petitions against emancipation than on those in its favour, but Robarts several times clashed with Wells in the House by asserting that the balance of opinion amongst the Dissenters and inhabitants of Maidstone was in favour of concessions.47 He also mentioned the role of the Inflexible Society in getting up reform petitions, but denied he was involved in any improper treating, 16 Mar. 1829. The distress experienced by Maidstone in early 1830 attracted the sympathy of both Members, as well as of Knatchbull, who presented a petition from local proprietors for repeal of the beer duties, 1 Mar. Wells, an Ultra, was praised by the Whiggish Maidstone Gazette for his endeavours, which included lodging a petition from the licensed victuallers against the sale of beer bill, 4 May 1830.48

Although it took on the appearance of another major contest, the general election of 1830 was in some ways a consensual affair.49 However, a sign that the poll would be close was given by the corporation’s admission of 72 freemen shortly beforehand.50 Wells had indicated in 1828 that he did not intend to seek re-election and duly retired at the dissolution.51 The barrister, William Hughes Hughes* of Ryde, Isle of Wight, was briefly rumoured to have considered standing. It was also said that a ‘mysterious stranger’ who had once sat for a borough in a neighbouring county, probably William Henry John Scott*, Lord Eldon’s son, might offer, but nothing came of it.52 Finally, Alderman Henry Winchester, a London stationer, addressed the freemen in defence of the landed and commercial interests of the country, 7 July, and condemned Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform at meetings, 9, 13 July.53 With Robarts standing again, it looked as if the two parties would divide the representation without a contest. However, Philip Rawlings of 3 Mortimer Street, London, who had been dismissed as a deputy commissary general in 1818 because of misconduct while in Portugal, offered as a third man under orange colours, four days before the poll. On 28 July he declared that

I am not a radical, neither am I an aristocratical Whig or Tory; but I am one of those old fashioned men, who, when they enter Parliament, seek to do their duty, actuated by their own consciences and the satisfaction of their constituents.54

Bribery was in evidence as usual, with Robarts paying £12 per plumper (as he did in 1831) and Winchester apparently leaving at least 40 votes unpaid for.55 Robarts was nominated by Charles Ellis, an ironmonger, and George Prentis, a wine merchant, who had both voted for him in the past; Winchester by Mares and Walter Hills, a draper, who had previously supported Wells, and Rawlings by Edward Russell, a London hop factor, and Isaac Pearson, a local blacksmith. Robarts stressed his reformist principles, Winchester promised to be an ‘apt scholar’ in a new school by fulfilling the electors’ wishes and Rawlings made clear his preference for reform and his intention only to oppose Winchester, not Robarts. At the end of the first day, Rawlings had fallen a long way behind, with only 152 votes to 336 for Winchester and 448 for Robarts. On the following morning, William, the son of William George Daniel Tyssen of Foley House, entered as an independent, proposed by Henry Collison, an East Malling labourer, and John Swain, a Maidstone waterman. After the votes of at least nine non-freemen, including Tyssen’s father, had been rejected, they refused to leave the hall and a riot nearly ensued. Although he received only four more votes (and Tyssen received a mere six), Rawlings insisted on keeping the poll open until the end of the day, when Robarts and Winchester were declared elected.56 Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary, listed Maidstone among those seats ‘gained in populous places’.

At the request of Winchester’s committee, two polling stations had been provided and their use was justified by the high turnout (84 per cent).57 Of the 752 freemen polled, 63 per cent voted for Robarts, 51 per cent for Winchester and 21 per cent for Rawlings. Robarts received 227 plumpers (representing 48 per cent of his total), and shared 126 splits with Winchester (27) and 112 with Rawlings (24). Winchester had 237 plumpers (61 per cent), and 126 splits with Robarts (33) and 24 with Rawlings (six). In total, 150 freemen (or 20 per cent of the voters) cross-voted. That the third candidate did so badly was partly due to his being closely identified with Robarts’s cause: 72 per cent of his votes were splits with him, compared to only 13 per cent in plumpers. He would also have benefited from the rejected votes, most of which were tendered in his favour. About 470 (or 75 per cent) of the voters of 1826 can be identified as having voted again in 1830, and their voting behaviour confirms the pattern of consistent partisanship. Of 150 plumpers for Robarts in 1826, 93 per cent plumped for him again or split their votes between him and one of the other non-Tory candidates. Of 146 plumpers for Wells, 74 per cent plumped for Winchester, and of 206 Tory plumpers and splitters in 1826, 69 per cent again cast a Tory vote in 1830. Of 114 cross-party splitters in 1826, 46 per cent voted the same way four years later. However, one indication that the Whigs were becoming more dominant was that another 46 per cent of them switched to purely Whig plumps or splits in 1830, compared to only eight per cent who changed to voting Tory.58

Two Whig voters petitioned against Winchester’s return as a government contractor, 16 Nov. 1830, and on the same day a petition was entered criticizing the mayor, Robert Tassell, for refusing to allow legitimate votes.59 At a meeting of non-freemen, which was chaired by Tyssen’s father in the absence of Rawlings, 29 Nov., Carter argued that the town’s charter empowered freeholders and inhabitants to vote. A petition was forwarded to Knatchbull outlining their claims, but was apparently not brought up. Carter appeared at a court of burghmote with three memorials from the non-freemen desiring their admission, 20 Dec. 1830, but he was again refused.60 Their cause was abandoned before the election committee sat, but Tassell was alarmed to get a summons to attend. The London solicitors, Amory and Coles, wrote to his Maidstone lawyer, 14 Mar. 1831, that

we can only suppose that the papers received by Mr. Tassell are the usual notices sent by the Speaker to the petitioners, the sitting Members and the returning officer. They are sent to the latter party that he may appear and defend himself if any charge is made against him, which is not the case on this occasion.61

On 16 Mar. 1831 the committee reported that, since Winchester had transferred his contract for supplying the navy commissioners with stationery to his partner before the election, he had been properly returned.62 Unlike most towns, Maidstone experienced some of the disturbances that swept southern England in late 1830. William Cobbett† lectured there, 15 Oct., and radicals influenced demands for higher wages, though with the exception of a few men like John Adams, a journeyman shoemaker who helped lead the riots on 28-29 Oct., they were not responsible for the incendiary attacks. Worsening conditions of employment and hostility to mechanization, especially among paper-makers, also involved artisans, not just the labouring poor, in the unrest.63 There were demands for the alleviation of distress, such as the meeting of local inhabitants which called for lower malt duties, 18 Nov.64 Robarts presented an anti-slavery petition, 9 Dec. 1830, and another one was brought up, 25 Mar. 1831.65 Distress also stimulated demands for parliamentary reform, an issue which divided the corporation party from their Whig opponents.66 A meeting of freeholders, ratepayers and inhabitants agreed a petition for immediate and constitutional reform, 10 Dec. 1830, and this was presented by Hodges, 2 Mar. 1831. At a reform meeting of freemen and inhabitants, 10 Mar., Ellis suggested that as Winchester had pledged himself to be responsive to their demands, he should be asked to support their petition, but it was in any case forwarded to Robarts, who entered it, 18 Mar. Winchester brought up a petition against reform on the grounds that it would remove some of the freemen’s rights, 21 Mar. 1831.67

In April 1831 efforts were begun to turn out Winchester, but handbills also appeared calling for a third man to oppose reform, and Robarts was criticized for his vote in favour of the reform bill at a meeting in his favour, 13 Apr. Lord Mahon*, the son of Earl Stanhope of Chevening, was approached to stand with Winchester against Robarts at the general election, but he remained aloof; Wells, Tassell and George Thomas, son of Edmund Knight of Godmersham Park, were also considered. Rawlings addressed the freemen, but got no further. Instead, Robarts introduced Charles James Barnett, son of the former Rochester Member, James Barnett, as his pro-reform partner, 1 May.68 The government’s patronage secretary Ellice informed Lord Brougham, the lord chancellor, 2 May, that they were ‘certain at Maidstone, pledged to support reform’.69 Against them, Winchester canvassed as an anti-ministerial candidate with George Simson, a former London banker, who had occupied the seat from 1806 to 1818.70 On the hustings, the reformers were nominated by Ellis and Prentis (for Robarts) and Thomas Hall Durrant, a grocer, and Collis (for Barnett). Mares and Wise proposed Winchester, and Tassell and James Poole introduced Simson, though not without the kind of noisy and abusive reception which had dogged them throughout the campaign. The Tory candidates’ endorsement of moderate reform met with little approval and most of the early votes were cast against them. Later in the day many London freemen voted in their favour, but they were decisively defeated and both withdrew before the second day. Despite the improved arrangement of having two polling compartments, which were installed at the candidates’ request, allegations were made that free access had not been given to the supporters of Winchester and Simson. Barnett recorded, however, that he owed his success to the electors’ ‘patriotism, added to the good opinion of me entertained by my highly esteemed and deservedly popular colleague, Mr. Robarts’.71 The radical Francis Place wrote that John Nicholson, a London tea dealer, had ‘turned his attention to that sink of corruption Maidstone, and with his usual energy, greatly contributed to turn out the jobbing Mr. Winchester’.72 At the Inflexible Society’s annual fête at Gibraltar Fields, 5 Sept. 1831, Robarts confirmed the significance of such Whig activists by acknowledging the important role of the club in securing his re-election.73 Given that the turnout was only reasonably high (73 per cent), the scale of the Whig victory was impressive: Robarts and Barnett received support from 74 and 68 per cent of the voters respectively, more than twice the figures for Winchester and Simson (30 and 23). There were 438 splits for the two reform candidates (representing 91 per cent of Robarts’s total and 99 per cent of Barnett’s), and 144 for the two anti-reform candidates (representing 74 per cent of Winchester’s votes and 96 per cent of Simson’s). There were only 24 plumpers (16 for Robarts and eight for Winchester) and only 41 electors cross-voted (six per cent of the total number voting). Winchester and Simson polled badly among out-county voters, but proportionately better among London voters (who accounted for 26 and 31 per cent of their votes respectively, compared to 21 per cent for the other candidates).74 The outcome of the election revealed an increase in the already high degree of partisan voting behaviour, which was especially visible in terms of the massive decline in cross voting and unnecessary plumping. This trend, although accelerated by the Reform Act, clearly began earlier than 1832, because the voters of Maidstone were influenced as much by the agitation over reform as by its actual implementation.75

Petitions were presented from the licensed victuallers against the Beer Act, 13 Aug., and from its inhabitants for justice to be done in the case of Thomas and Caroline Deacle, 15 Sept. 1831.76 There was a reform meeting, 23 Sept., and after the rejection of the bill by the Lords, another approved an address to the king in its favour, 15 Oct. 1831.77 Robarts promised to present and support a petition against child employment in factories, 27 Feb. 1832, but apparently did not do so. Barnett brought up a Maidstone petition for inquiry into the case of Alexander Somerville, 8 Aug.78 The pro-reform Inflexible Society continued to meet, for example on 13 Aug., and by the time of the dissolution, local party organization had been consolidated with the emergence of two Tory societies, the Conservative Committee and the Constitution Club, and two Whig groups, the Loyal True Blue Club and the Maidstone Political Union.79 With over 3,000 houses, of which 1,417 were valued at more than £10, Maidstone retained its representation under the Reform Act and its boundary was not altered. On the revised register of electors, 456 were ancient right freemen and 652 were £10 householders.80 At the general election of 1832 the sitting Members were returned after a fierce contest against Lewis. Robarts refused to engage in bribery, but Lewis paid about £5,000 and even considered settling Winchester’s outstanding debts.81 After failing to vote for economies in 1833, Robarts answered his constituents’ remonstrance with a strong statement of his own independence. According to Lewis’s agent, Richard Hart, Robarts’s support was declining in Maidstone, and it was only his ‘personal influence which carried him and his colleague through at the last election - it was certainly not political feeling’.82

A few days before the 1835 general election, Greville recorded a conversation with Robarts:

He has been a Member seventeen years; the place very corrupt. Formerly (before the reform bill), when the constituency was less numerous, the matter was easily and simply conducted; the price of votes was as regularly fixed as the price of bread, so much for a single vote and so much a plumper, and this he had to pay. After the reform bill he resolved to pay no more money, as corruption was to cease. The consequence was that during his canvass none of the people who had formerly voted for him would promise him their votes. They all sulked and hesitated and, in short, waited to see what would be offered them. I asked him what were the new constituency. ‘If possible worse than the old’. The people are generally alive to public affairs, look to the votes and speeches of Members, give their opinions, but are universally corrupt. They have a sour feeling against what are nicknamed abuses, rail against sinnicures, as they call them, and descant upon the enormity of such things while they are forced to work all day long and their families have not enough to eat. But the one prevailing object of the whole community is to make money of their votes, and though he says there are some exceptions, they are very few indeed.83

Although this points to the ineffectiveness of reform in combating corruption, Robarts’s off-the-cuff comment also reflected personal resentment at the persistence of an engrained venality in his constituency, despite the simultaneous existence of a long tradition of partisanship and the growing influence of national party consciousness.84 Turbulent and venal party politics did indeed continue for many years. Greville believed that power had been transferred to a ‘low class of persons; so low as to be dissatisfied and malignant, high enough to be half-instructed’.85 The municipal corporations report agreed that

where the decision of a question is not influenced by bribery, the issue most commonly depends upon the popular feeling prevalent among the lowest classes at the time, and is independent of the merits. The effect of the system has been to excite in one party at least, a distrust in the magistracy of the town, and which shows itself in all the ordinary parochial arrangements.86

Partly as a result of Tory gold, Lewis eventually gained a seat at Maidstone in 1835 and two years later successfully introduced his protégé, Benjamin Disraeli†, but the agitation over reform had nevertheless had a powerful impact in augmenting the already high level of voter loyalty towards each party.87

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Peep at the Commons (1820), 11; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 217-18.
  • 2. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, i. 53, 237-8; PP (1831-2), xxxix. 27-28; (1835), xxiv. 109; (1837), 285-6; S. C. Lampreys, Account of Maidstone, 1, 42-45; J.M. Russell, Hist. Maidstone, 319-28; P. Clark and L. Murfin, Hist. Maidstone, 71-96.
  • 3. Add. 51571.
  • 4. Clark and Murfin, 101-3; J. Phillips, Electoral Behaviour in Unreformed England, 104-11, 212-52; ‘Many Faces of Reform’, PH, i (1982), 115-35; ‘From Municipal Matters to Parlty. Principles’, Albion, xxvii (1988), 327-51; and Great Reform Bill in Boroughs, 47, 106, 108-10 [hereafter cited as Phillips].
  • 5. Cent. Kent. Stud. Maidstone borough recs. Md/AEb1/1820-1832; Maidstone Jnl. 6 Nov. 1821, 4 Nov. 1823, 9 Nov. 1830; PP (1835), xxiv. 95, 100-1.
  • 6. For example, see Maidstone Jnl. 21 June 1831.
  • 7. K. Eaton, ‘Newspapers and Politics in Canterbury and Maidstone, 1815-1850’ (Univ. of Kent at Canterbury M.A. thesis, 1972), 51-59, 115-22, 203.
  • 8. F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties, 45; Bodl. Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/31-33, 211.
  • 9. Spectator, 1 Jan. 1831; [W. Carpenter] People’s Bk. (1831), 357; Key to Both Houses (1832), 354-5.
  • 10. PP (1835), xxiv. 94-95, 98-99.
  • 11. Maidstone borough recs. Rf1/5; ACp16, 17.
  • 12. Hughenden Dep. D/I/D/140; D/II/C/13c; Kentish Gazette, 16 Dec. 1825; PP (1835), xxiv. 100-1, 107-8.
  • 13. Maidstone Jnl. 15, 29 Feb., 7 Mar.; Kentish Chron. 18 Feb., 3, 14 Mar.; Kentish Gazette, 25 Feb., 3 Mar.; Norf. RO, Gurney mss, Barclay to Gurney, 27 Feb. 1820.
  • 14. Kentish Chron. 10 Mar.; Maidstone Jnl. 14 Mar. 1820.
  • 15. Add. 52444, ff. 91, 98; CJ, lxxv. 187-8, 215, 239; Maidstone Jnl. 16, 23, 30 May 1820.
  • 16. Maidstone Pollbooks (1820); Maidstone Jnl. 14 Mar. 1820.
  • 17. Maidstone Jnl. 17 Oct., 7, 14, 21 Nov., 26 Dec. 1820, 2 Jan. 1821.
  • 18. CJ, lxxvi. 350; lxxvii. 316; The Times, 18 May 1821, 5 June 1822.
  • 19. CJ, lxxvii. 178; lxxx. 338; The Times, 18 Apr. 1822, 26 Apr. 1825.
  • 20. CJ, lxxviii. 115, 293; The Times, 14 Mar., 8 May 1823.
  • 21. CJ, lxxviii. 18-19, 39, 47, 114, 154, 282, 295, 321, 334; Russell, 402.
  • 22. Maidstone borough recs. ACp16, 17; ACm2/1; Maidstone Jnl. 4 Nov., 23 Dec. 1823, 7 Mar., 2 May 1826; CJ, lxxix. 147, 154, 176, 184, 221, 246, 363, 386, 411, 454, 458; Russell, 329-31.
  • 23. CJ, lxxix. 125, 148, 223, 312; lxxxi. 111; Maidstone Jnl. 6 Apr.; The Times, 6 Mar., 4 May 1823, 12 Mar. 1824, 1 Mar. 1826.
  • 24. CJ, lxxix. 422; lxxx. 343; Maidstone Jnl. 26 Apr. 1825.
  • 25. Kentish Gazette, 25 Oct. 1825, 12 May; Maidstone Jnl. 25 Apr. 1826; LJ, lviii. 332.
  • 26. Maidstone Jnl. 15, 22 Jan., 22 Feb.; Kentish Chron. 15, 22 Jan. 1822; Maidstone borough recs. AEb2/26.
  • 27. Maidstone Jnl. 5, 19, 26 Nov., 3 Dec. 1822; Maidstone borough recs. AEb2/27.
  • 28. Maidstone Jnl. 19, 26 Apr., 6 Sept.; The Times, 11 May 1825; CJ, lxxx. 396.
  • 29. Maidstone borough recs. ACp16; AEb2/28; Kentish Gazette, 13, 16 Dec. 1825; Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/13c.
  • 30. Maidstone Jnl. 21 Mar., 6 June; The Times, 2, 9 June 1826.
  • 31. Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/1e, 13c, 13d, 15, 16, 31-33, 211; Kentish Chron. 13 June 1826.
  • 32. Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/3; Maidstone borough recs. AEp2/1826/10.
  • 33. Maidstone Jnl. 13 June 1826.
  • 34. Maidstone Pollbooks (1826); Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/1e, 13a, 13b, 14, 17.
  • 35. Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/1d.
  • 36. Ibid. D/II/C/1a, 7, 18, unnumbered.
  • 37. Ibid. D/II/C/4, 12.
  • 38. Ibid. D/II/C/6.
  • 39. W. May, Lewisiana (1834) at Hughenden Dep. D/II/E/34.
  • 40. Kentish Chron. 2 Mar.; The Times, 6 Mar. 1827; CJ, lxxxii. 272.
  • 41. CJ, lxxxii. 520, 534; lxxxiii. 78, 96; The Times, 7, 9 June 1827.
  • 42. CJ, lxxxii. 379; lxxxiii. 355; The Times, 3 Apr. 1827, 17 May 1828.
  • 43. Maidstone borough recs. ACp17; AEb2/29; Maidstone Jnl. 27 May 1828; Phillips, 110.
  • 44. Maidstone borough recs. ACp17; Kent Herald, 29 May; The Times, 31 May 1828; CJ, lxxxiii. 385.
  • 45. Maidstone Jnl. 23 Sept. 1828, 24 Feb. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 85; LJ, lxi. 291.
  • 46. CJ, lxxxiv. 85, 124, 141, 148.
  • 47. Kentish Gazette, 20 Mar. 1829.
  • 48. CJ, lxxxv. 111, 365; Maidstone Gazette, 23 Feb.; The Times, 2 Mar. 1830; Phillips, 107, 111.
  • 49. Phillips, 53, 111, 140.
  • 50. Maidstone borough recs. ACp/17.
  • 51. Maidstone Jnl. 9 Dec. 1828, 6 July 1830.
  • 52. Maidstone Gazette, 25 May 1830.
  • 53. Ibid. 13, 20 July; Maidstone Jnl. 13 July 1830.
  • 54. London Gazette, 26 Dec. 1818; Maidstone Jnl. 27 July, 3 Aug. 1830.
  • 55. Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/32.
  • 56. The Times, 2 Aug.; Maidstone Jnl. 3 Aug.; Kentish Chron. 3 Aug. 1830; Maidstone borough recs. Md/AEp2/1830/17.
  • 57. Maidstone borough recs. AEp2/1830/13; Phillips, 34-35.
  • 58. Maidstone Pollbooks (1826), (1830); Maidstone borough recs. AEp2/1830/14; Kent and Essex Mercury, 10 Aug. 1830.
  • 59. CJ, lxxxvi. 99-100.
  • 60. Maidstone Gazette, 30 Nov., 21 Dec.; Kentish Gazette, 3 Dec. 1830; Maidstone borough recs. ACp17.
  • 61. Maidstone borough recs. AEp2/1830/18.
  • 62. CJ, lxxxvi. 385; The Times, 17 Mar.; Maidstone Jnl. 22 Mar. 1831.
  • 63. E. J. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé, Captain Swing (1985), 66, 71, 76-77, 82, 159, 184, 204, 208; R. Wells, ‘Rural Rebels in Southern England in 1830s’, Artisans, Peasants and Proletarians ed. C. Emsley and J. Walvin, 126-32.
  • 64. Kentish Gazette, 3 Dec. 1830.
  • 65. CJ, lxxxvi. 160, 435.
  • 66. Phillips, 107-8.
  • 67. Maidstone Jnl. 14 Dec. 1830, 8, 15, 22 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 333, 402, 416.
  • 68. Cent. Kent. Stud. Stanhope mss U1590 C381/1, Caney to Mahon, 1, 26 Apr.; Berks. RO, Pusey mss D/EBp C1/44; Kentish Chron. 5 Apr., 3 May; Maidstone Jnl. 5, 26 Apr., 3 May; Maidstone Gazette, 19 Apr. 1831.
  • 69. Brougham mss.
  • 70. Not his heir, as erroneously stated in HP Commons, 1790-1820, v. 178.
  • 71. Kentish Chron. 6 May; Maidstone Jnl. 10 May; Maidstone Gazette, 10 May 1831; Maidstone borough recs. AEp2/1831/11, 13, 14.
  • 72. Add. 36466, ff. 333, 335.
  • 73. Maidstone Jnl. 6 Sept. 1831.
  • 74. Maidstone Pollbook (1831).
  • 75. Phillips, 106, 112-14, 300.
  • 76. CJ, lxxxvi. 752, 844.
  • 77. Maidstone Jnl. 27 Sept., 18 Oct. 1831; Clark and Murfin, 103.
  • 78. Maidstone Jnl. 14 Feb., 6 Mar.; CJ, lxxxvii. 567.
  • 79. Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/42; D/II/E/33; Phillips, 115-16.
  • 80. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 324; xxxix. 27; (1835), xxiv. 109.
  • 81. Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/32, 363; Maidstone Jnl. 11, 18 Dec. 1832.
  • 82. Hughenden Dep. D/II/C/216, 231; D/II/E/30.
  • 83. Greville Mems. iii. 132-3.
  • 84. N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 123, 125; Phillips, 116-17.
  • 85. Greville Mems. iii. 133.
  • 86. PP (1835), xxiv. 100.
  • 87. Phillips, 8, 114-15, 117-20, 132-40.