New Woodstock


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:

about 200

Number of voters:

about 170 in 1826


1,455 (1821); 1,320 (1831)


10 June 1826GEORGE SPENCER CHURCHILL, mq. of Blandford92
 James Haughton Langston70
 Robert McWilliam28
8 Feb. 1828ASHLEY COOPER re-elected after appointment to office 
31 July 1830GEORGE SPENCER CHURCHILL, mq. of Blandford 
 James Silk Buckingham15
 Charles Richardson8

Main Article

The dominant electoral interest at Woodstock, one of the smallest of the Oxfordshire market towns, was that of the Spencer Churchills, dukes of Marlborough, whose imposing residence at Blenheim Palace adjoined it. The original crown gift of Woodstock manor had included no borough property, but successive dukes, who were major benefactors to the town and employers of its inhabitants, had subsequently acquired substantial holdings within it. By the start of this period Woodstock, though neat and handsomely built, was in economic decline, with a falling population and soaring poor rates. The virtual collapse of its steel jewellery manufacture, in the face of cheap competition from the Midlands and Sheffield, and difficulties in the traditional local glove making industry, contributed to this stagnation; but the chief cause was the severe reductions imposed on the Blenheim establishment by the impecunious (and degenerate) 5th duke of Marlborough after succeeding to the title and estates in 1817.1 The common council, which consisted of a mayor, four other aldermen, two chamberlains, 15 capital burgesses and the usual officers (the Marlboroughs were high stewards), was largely though not always entirely subservient to Blenheim. It was increasingly unrepresentative of the inhabitants at large and, bereft of funds and will, played little significant part in municipal affairs.2 The Blenheim interest, which had been unsuccessfully challenged in 1802 and 1806, was not invulnerable, especially in view of the 5th duke’s lack of money. Admission to the freedom was by birth, apprenticeship and occasional gift: in this period there were 29 by birth, 11 by apprenticeship and 12 by gift.3 Over half the freemen were non-resident and therefore potentially less amenable to control; and there was a core of opposition to Marlborough domination within the borough.4 In keeping with recent family tradition, the duke was at odds with his eldest son and heir Lord Blandford; they had only their immorality in common.

Marlborough became a persistent but unsuccessful suitor for employment and favours from the Liverpool ministry in the 1820s. As Member for Chippenham in the 1818 Parliament, Blandford had acted, when present, with the Whig opposition, though he had rallied to government in support of the repressive legislation of late 1819. He was expected to be returned for Woodstock in 1820, when the long-serving sitting Member, Sir Henry Dashwood of Kirtlington Park, an inactive ministerialist in his 75th year, retired. The other sitting Member, Marlborough’s uncle Lord Robert Spencer, a veteran Foxite Whig only two years younger than Dashwood, was at first thought likely to come in again; but Tierney, the Whig leader in the Commons, told Lord Grey that his return was ‘in a bad way, there being the devil to play at Woodstock’.5 Marlborough offered his seat to government, asking Liverpool to name, by preference, ‘any eminent commercial person’. The premier recommended John Gladstone, a wealthy Liverpool merchant, Member for Lancaster in the 1818 Parliament. Gladstone later claimed that on his arrival he ‘found a strong party in the borough hostile to the duke’, who was ‘generally indebted to the tradesmen there’, and that he was told he must ‘pay ... [the duke’s] debts before they would say anything to me’, which he refused to do. The day after he had canvassed the resident electors, to ‘the full and entire satisfaction’ of Marlborough, who gave him full support, James Langston of Sarsden House, about 12 miles from Woodstock, a wealthy young Whig squire who had just served as sheriff of Oxfordshire, offered. In an oddly worded address, Blandford, whose reference to an attack on the electors’ ‘independence’, which he claimed to have come forward to uphold, was presumably an allusion to his father’s introduction of Gladstone, withdrew, admitting that his own canvass had been unsatisfactory, and professing reluctance to join forces with another candidate. According to Gladstone, ‘overtures were then made to me for the payment of the debts, say four or five thousand pounds, which I still declined’. Blandford subsequently supported Gladstone, who was returned unopposed with Langston.6 The latter assured Marlborough that he had ‘not been actuated by the most distant motive of personal disrespect’, had ‘never at any time entertained for a single moment the idea of wantonly opposing your interest or setting up any pretensions of my own’ and had ‘by chance’ been alerted in London to the possibility of an opening at Woodstock by the ministerialist General John Michel, formerly Member for Belfast. Marlborough, unimpressed by Langston’s sophistry, told Gladstone that he had ‘great hopes’ of turning him out on petition, as one act of bribery (the gift of a watch and £3) had been admitted by the recipient, two others were ‘known of, but ... not confessed yet’, and, so he suspected, at least three local tradesmen had ‘either borrowed money on their bills of L. or received bribes direct’. He did not, however, wish his agent Henry North, the son of the town clerk, to get wind of his intentions, as ‘local connections are too strong to allow him to be hearty in the business’. Nothing came of this.7 Marlborough subsequently tried more than once to persuade Gladstone to contribute £2,500 towards his local debts, though he told Liverpool in 1822, when asking for patronage, that he had been returned ‘gratuitously’. Gladstone, who considered that he had been under no obligation beyond payment of the basic expenses of £877, and that in the event he had ‘owed my return in a great measure to accident’, would have none of it.8

There was no reported celebration in Woodstock of the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline, although her acknowledgement of a gift of white satin shoes from a sympathetic local cordwainer was said to have ‘set all the town in a blaze’.9 On 13 Apr. 1821 the corporation adopted a petition to the Lords against the Catholic relief bill. It was presented, 16 Apr., with a like one from the inhabitants, by Marlborough’s brother-in-law the 6th earl of Shaftesbury.10 The corporation petitioned through Shaftesbury against the Catholic peers bill in May 1822.11 The following month, when it was erroneously thought that Gladstone was on the verge of standing for Liverpool, Marlborough asked him not to `take me by surprise, knowing how I am circumstanced about Woodstock’, and to give him ‘a confidential communication as soon as you have settled upon any plan which may induce you to give up your present seat’.12 The corporation got up a petition for repeal of the window tax, 16 Mar. 1824, which was presented to the Commons, with one from the inhabitant householders, 14 Apr.13 Woodstock petitioned the Lords against Catholic relief, 17 May 1825.14

In September 1825, when a dissolution was thought to be imminent, Blandford and his cousin Lord Ashley, Shaftesbury’s eldest son, declared their joint candidature on the Blenheim interest. Gladstone, who knew that he had ‘no chance’ of re-election, and had concluded that Marlborough had ‘not interest or influence to return either of the Members for Woodstock’, where he was ‘unpopular in the extreme’, turned his attention to Berwick. Langston stood his ground, and was joined by Robert McWilliam of Furnival’s Inn and Torrington Square, London. Canvassing and entertaining of the electors went on until the turn of the year.15 At the general election of 1826, Blandford and Ashley made much of their hostility to Catholic relief, to which Langston, for all his Whiggism, was also opposed, though he was attacked for having failed to vote on the issue in 1825 and was discomposed by heckling. McWilliam spoke at wearisome length on his pet subject of the promotion of working class education. He finished a distant last in a fierce contest, while Blandford topped the poll and Ashley narrowly beat Langston into third place. About 170 freemen voted. According to an opponent of the Blenheim interest, there occurred

the most shameful scenes ever remembered in this town. Each party opposed the other with sticks and stones. The three sons of the duke of Marlborough exceeded all the rest in swearing and other blackguard conduct. The marquess [of Blandford] had his head cut. Lord Charles [Spencer Churchill] was without his shirt fighting in the street until he was beat into the Bear Inn. They behaved so ill that their supporters cried shame and many declared they were the greatest blackguards at the election.16

Langston immediately went by invitation to Oxford, where he topped the poll.

Ashley was quietly re-elected on his appointment to junior office in the Wellington ministry in February 1828, when it was reported that ‘no ribbons were distributed’ at what was ‘the dullest election that ever took place in Woodstock’.17 He voted with his colleagues for Catholic emancipation in 1829, when Woodstock inhabitants petitioned the Lords both for and against the measure. The favourable petition was sent to Marlborough for presentation, but in his absence it was delivered by Lord Lansdowne.18 The measure so outraged Blandford that he espoused the cause of parliamentary reform in order to make the Commons more responsive to public opinion and to prevent an influx of Catholics by means of rotten boroughs, and went into active if idiosyncratic opposition. At the general election of 1830, when Ashley came in for Dorchester, Blandford, who proclaimed his support for reform and retrenchment, was returned unopposed for Woodstock with his younger brother Lord Charles. A late attempt by some London voters to put up William Marshall Tollner of Sackville Street, a native of Cork, ended in abject failure.19

At a town hall meeting dominated by clergymen, 14 Sept. 1830, petitions for the abolition of slavery were set on foot. They were presented to the Commons, 5 Nov., and the Lords, 9 Nov. 1830. Similar petitions from the inhabitants and Wesleyan Methodists were presented to the Commons, 29 Mar., 14 Apr. 1831, as was one from local Baptists to the Lords, 18 Apr.20 There was some unrest among those employed in the glove making industry at the end of 1830, and when two master glovers were convicted for using the truck system they were burnt in effigy; but Woodstock was untouched by the ‘Swing’ disturbances.21 Both Blandford and his brother voted against the Wellington ministry on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, and the following month the former promoted a Woodstock inhabitants’ petition in favour of parliamentary reform.22 He supported the Grey ministry’s reform bill, by which Woodstock was scheduled for total disfranchisement on the account of its small population. Marlborough and Spencer Churchill would not countenance the measure, against which a petition from the inhabitants, householders and freemen was presented to the Commons, 19 Apr. 1831.23 At the general election which followed the defeat of the bill, Blandford stood down in the face of this anti-reform feeling, and his brother was joined on the Blenheim interest by the Ultra Tory Lord Stormont, eldest son of the 3rd earl of Mansfield. They were challenged by James Silk Buckingham†, the reforming journalist and newspaper proprietor, who, on his arrival in Woodstock, apparently in response to an approach from some London voters, issued an address in which he argued that the borough charter indicated that the franchise lay not in the freemen but in all ‘tenants, residents and inhabitants’, promised to ‘try this great constitutional question’ and spoke at two well-attended public meetings.24 He was joined on the morning of the election by Charles Richardson of Golden Square, a London attorney and the son and namesake of the proprietor of Richardson’s Hotel at the Piazza, Covent Garden, who had died in 1827 and whose father John Richardson had been a farmer at Combe, two miles south-west of Woodstock. Richardson portrayed himself as an unreserved supporter of the reform bill and ‘an unflinching opponent to extravagance in all branches of the public expenditure and an enemy to slavery and corruption in whatever shape it [sic] may appear’.25 At the close of the first day, a Saturday, when only freemen were polled, Churchill had 74 votes, Stormont 67, Buckingham 15 and Richardson eight. Richardson withdrew and returned to London, but Buckingham kept the poll open to the Monday, when he tried in vain to have the votes of 123 householders admitted, and secured one more freeman’s vote in the total poll of 93.26 He had already written to Richardson to urge him to call at the headquarters of the Loyal and Patriotic Fund to endorse his application for £100 towards defraying his costs. He did not have enough money to go through with a petition against Stormont’s return and to have the right of election tried, as he admitted to Lord Milton* when he sought a berth at Malton soon afterwards.27

When the disfranchisement of Woodstock by the reintroduced reform bill was considered by the Commons, 26 July 1831, Stormont, claiming that it was ‘a very rising and populous town’ and that its population was 2,368, if the hamlet of Old Woodstock and the parish of Bladen were taken into account, asked ministers to preserve one seat; but Lord John Russell would have none of it. Daniel O’Connell announced that he had been requested by Blandford to state that it was not a nomination borough, as hardly any of the freemen were admitted by gift; while Ashley described it as ‘the capital of a very large district’ and, laughably, asserted that Marlborough ‘could not control ten votes of the entire town in the event of an election’ and that ‘his power is as nothing’. Spencer Churchill also put in a word for the borough, whose extinction was agreed to without a division. On 28 Sept. 1831 a faction on the corporation led by North, town clerk since 1829, objected to Marlborough’s nomination of Francis Walesby to replace the late James Blackstone as recorder and had it invalidated for lack of a quorum. As each side deliberately avoided meetings to prevent a valid election from taking place, the corporate government of Woodstock remained effectively in abeyance until early 1838.28 Under the new criteria adopted for the revised reform bill in November 1831, Woodstock was reprieved and allowed to retain one Member, being placed 63rd in the list of boroughs scheduled for total or partial disfranchisement, with 382 houses and assessed taxes of £544. In order to create a viable constituency, the boundary commissioner’s recommendation of the addition to the old borough of ten parishes, three hamlets and the extra-parochial part of Blenheim Park was adopted. This produced a largely rural constituency of over 33 square miles, with a population of 7,055, 373 £10 houses and 317 registered electors, of whom 241 were householders (76 in the old borough) and 76 freemen (52 in the old borough). A story that Marlborough secured the borough’s salvation through a corrupt bargain with the ministry can be discounted.29 These changes reinforced the Blenheim interest, which remained dominant until the borough became part of Mid Oxfordshire in 1884. Blandford replaced his brother without challenge in 1832, and made way for him in 1835; but family squabbles led to contests in 1837 and at a by-election in 1838, when Blandford defeated his youngest brother by five votes in a poll of 315.30

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. VCH Oxon. xii. 327, 330, 340, 364-7; PP (1835), xxiii. 143-4; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1823-4), 453; (1830), 663.
  • 2. VCH Oxon. xii. 375; PP (1835), xxiii. 139-42.
  • 3. Oxon. Archives, Woodstock borough recs. B. 30/1/1.
  • 4. VCH Oxon. xii. 404; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 600.
  • 5. Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 19, 26 Feb.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 27 Feb. 1820.
  • 6. Add. 38458, ff. 286, 325; 64813, f. 46; Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 4, 11 Mar.; St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 326, Blandford to Gladstone and reply, 5 Mar. 1820; Woodstock borough recs. 89, p. 278; Harewood mss HAR/GC/83, Gladstone to Backhouse, 28 Nov. [?1824].
  • 7. Glynne-Gladstone mss 290, Langston to Marlborough, 8 Mar., reply, 9 Mar., Marlborough to Gladstone, 13 Mar. 1820.
  • 8. VCH Oxon. xii. 404; Harewood mss HAR/GC/83, Gladstone to Backhouse, 28 Nov. [?1824]; Glynne-Gladstone mss 368, 369.
  • 9. Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. c. 351, ff. 30, 35.
  • 10. Woodstock borough recs. 89, p. 287; LJ, liv. 347.
  • 11. Woodstock borough recs. 89, p. 293; LJ, lv. 203.
  • 12. Glynne-Gladstone mss 290, Marlborough to Gladstone, 30 June 1822.
  • 13. Woodstock borough recs. 89, p. 305; CJ, lxxix. 298.
  • 14. LJ, lvii. 831.
  • 15. Oxford University and City Herald, 3, 10, 17, 24 Sept.; Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 8, 15, 29 Oct. 1825, 7 Jan. 1826; Add. 38301, f. 22; Harewood mss HAR/GC/83, Gladstone to Backhouse, 28 [?Nov. 1824].
  • 16. Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 3, 10, 17 June; Oxford University and City Herald, 3, 10 June; The Times, 12, 13 June 1826; Woodstock borough recs. 89, p. 320; Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. c. 351, f.169; VCH Oxon. xii. 404-5.
  • 17. E. Hodder, Life and Work of Lord Shaftesbury, i. 81-82; Oxford University and City Herald, 16 Feb. 1828.
  • 18. LJ, lxi. 345, 357; Oxford University and City Herald, 4 Apr. 1829.
  • 19. Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 10, 31 July, 7 Aug.; The Times, 3 Aug.; Oxford University and City Herald, 7 Aug. 1830; Woodstock borough recs. 89, p. 357; VCH Oxon. xii. 405.
  • 20. Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 25 Sept. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 39, 456, 486; LJ, lxiii. 29, 458.
  • 21. VCH Oxon, xii. 330, 367.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxvi. 164.
  • 23. Ibid. 505.
  • 24. Add. 51604, Granville to Holland, 25 Apr.; Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 30 Apr. 1831; Bodl. Eng. Misc. d. 92, f. 101; G.A. Oxon. b. 202, ff. 1-5.
  • 25. VCH Oxon. xii. 82, 98; Gent. Mag. (1827), i. 571; Bodl. Eng. Misc. d. 92, f. 102.
  • 26. Jackson’s Oxford Jnl. 7 May 1831; Bodl. Eng. Misc. d. 92, ff. 101, 105; Woodstock borough recs. 89, p. 362; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 600.
  • 27. Bodl. Eng. Misc. d. 92, f. 103; Fitzwilliam mss, Buckingham to Milton, 6 May 1831.
  • 28. Woodstock borough recs. 89, p. 365-6; VCH Oxon. xii. 375; A.F. Ballard, Chrons. Woodstock, 126.
  • 29. PP (1831-2), xxxix. 314-19; N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 70, 97; VCH Oxon. xii. 405; W. Wing, Parl. Hist. Woodstock (1873), 4.
  • 30. Gash, 225-6; VCH Oxon. xii. 405.