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 not receiving alms

Estimated number qualified to vote:

over 1,300 in 1821, rising to over 2,400 in 18311

Number of voters:

2,404 in 1831


10,793 (1821); 15,351 (1831)


11 Mar. 1820SIR GEORGE ROBINSON, bt. 901
 Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, Earl Compton 622
20 June 1826SIR GEORGE ROBINSON, bt. 1348
 Sir Robert Henry Gunning, bt. 1005
4 Aug. 1830SIR GEORGE ROBINSON, bt. 1376
 Charles Hill 566
31 May 1831SIR GEORGE ROBINSON, bt.157021686
 Sir Robert Henry Gunning, bt.11571241
 James Lyon185191

Main Article

Northampton, one of the largest potwalloper boroughs, was ‘a flourishing town’ whose prosperity was on the increase.3 The opening of the branch canal in 1815, which linked the town with the main artery of the Grand Junction Canal four miles away at Blisworth, was the catalyst for its rapid expansion. The waterway gave Northampton’s traditional footwear manufacturers ready access to London, Birmingham and the fast developing industrial regions in the north. They capitalized on these new markets, and the numbers employed in boot and shoe making rose from about 550 in 1818 to 1,300 in 1831.4 This increased the population and the size of the electorate, as a result of which 62 per cent of adult males polled in 1831. For many years the Tory 1st marquess of Northampton of nearby Castle Ashby had controlled one of the seats in conjunction with the self-electing corporation, comprising a mayor, who was also the returning officer, a recorder (Lord Northampton), two bailiffs, an indefinite number of aldermen who had all served as bailiffs, and 48 common councillors. Its exclusively Anglican and Tory character created deep resentment among the independents, consisting mainly of the large Dissenting interest, including most of the shoe manufacturers, who usually secured the election of a Whig second Member. The marquess normally returned a kinsman, his son Earl Compton having occupied the seat since 1812, while the independents had long relied on the Bouverie family of Delapré Abbey. However, in 1818, after 22 years without a contest, the Tories introduced a second candidate, Sir George Kerrison of Oakley, Suffolk, and demonstrated that they had the upper hand by securing his return with Compton at the expense of the local Whig Sir George Robinson.5 Both sides used their influence to further their political aims, the corporation relying on its control of charity money and the Dissenters on their role as employers. The municipal corporations commissioners noted in 1835 that since 1826 not a single recipient of a loan from Sir Thomas White’s charity, which the corporation controlled, had ever cast a vote against their candidate. Similarly, only a handful of children whose fathers had polled against the Tories were permitted to enter the three charity schools which were under corporation patronage, while distribution of charity clothes was restricted to those who had polled for the corporation candidate. The commissioners concluded that ‘this mode of distribution of charities enables the corporation to exercise a very considerable influence over the poorer voters’.6 The shoemakers formed the largest homogeneous element of the electorate and were the key to success. The Dissenting shoe manufacturers were accused of applying ‘the screw’ to their employees by dismissing or refusing to give new work to those who had voted against the Whig candidates, and they considered the acceptance of a Tory bribe for a vote as a dismissible offence. The Tories often tried to counter this threat by promising work to voters who were sacked, but at each of the four elections in this period the shoemakers voted proportionately in greater numbers for the Whig candidates than did their employers. (The town’s six Dissenting ministers always divided their votes between the two Whigs.)7

At the 1820 general election Compton offered again and Robinson came forward at the behest of the independents. The corporation invited George Agar Ellis* to be their second man, but he demurred, and they reluctantly reverted to William Leader Maberly, Member for Westbury since May 1819, who had continued to cultivate the borough since his abortive candidature in 1818, when he had been forced to resign in favour of Kerrison on account of being under age.8 After the first week’s canvassing the Whig Lord Althorp* informed his father Earl Spencer, 13 Feb., that he had ‘little doubt’ that Robinson would again be beaten. On 18 Feb., however, he reported:

Robinson is likely to come in at last. Maberly’s people have quarrelled with Compton’s, and they both split their votes upon Robinson. Maberly has shown great skill, he had not paid his bills, but he has contrived to throw all the odium of it upon Compton, and the probability is that Compton will be beaten. He has been pelted and abused in the most violent manner during all his canvass.9

This disagreement had probably originated in Maberly’s following his father John’s lead in defecting to opposition towards the end of the previous session. Despite his new allegiance, he did not unite with Robinson, and all three candidates emphasized their independence.10 On 27 Feb. the Whig leader in the Commons George Tierney advised his counterpart in the Lords Lord Grey of the likelihood of their gaining both seats.11 Before the poll the town was surprisingly subdued, there being ‘no ribbands, flags or liquor’. Althorp’s prediction was borne out, and Compton was pushed into third place. It appears that while he and Robinson promised £1 to their voters, Maberly promised £5. Compton’s defeat was also ascribed to bad management on the part of his committee, while it was suspected that many had been allowed to poll who were not qualified.12 Despite his defeat, Compton was drawn out of town in a procession which ‘gave rather the appearance of a splendid triumph than the departure of an unsuccessful candidate’. Robinson, who topped the poll, jubilantly noted that the number of votes he received exceeded those promised on his canvass.13 Of the 1,431 who polled, Robinson secured support from 63 per cent (383 as plumpers, 329 as split votes shared with Maberly, and 189 shared with Compton). Maberly received a vote from 55 per cent (356 shared with Compton and 97 as plumpers), and Compton 43 per cent (77 as plumpers). Robinson was supported by 82 per cent of the 373 boot and shoe workers who polled, Maberly by 53 per cent and Compton by only 19. Of the 21 boot and shoe manufacturers who polled, 11 plumped for Robinson and two for Maberly, while three split for Robinson and Compton, three for Compton and Maberly, and two for Robinson and Maberly.14 Compton’s defeat led his father to abandon his interest in the borough, leaving the corporation to fight the Tory cause alone.

Both Members of course sided with the Whig opposition to the Liverpool ministry. They presented a Northampton loyal address, containing 1,476 signatures, to Queen Caroline, 26 Aug. 1820. The abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties was celebrated in the town, 11 Nov., and a congratulatory address, with over 1,600 names, was presented to her by Maberly, 1 Dec. 1820. A counter-petition organized by the corporation was announced a few days before Christmas, but the mayor refused to accede to a requisition for a public meeting to petition the king against any further proceedings against Caroline.15 Nevertheless a gathering took place at the Ram, 16 Jan. 1821, which sanctioned the petition and additionally called on the king to dismiss his ministers. The corporation’s loyal address was presented to the king, 26 Jan., while the Ram petition was presented to the Commons and endorsed by Maberly, 1 Feb.16 Robinson presented a petition for parliamentary reform, 17 Apr. 1821, and another from two of the constituency’s four parishes against the poor removal bill, 31 May 1822.17 Both Members supported Catholic relief, against which petitions reached the Commons, 17 Apr. 1823, 18 Apr. 1825, and the Lords, 22 Apr., 13, 16 May 1825.18 Petitions were presented to the Commons for repeal of the leather tax, 30 Apr. 1823, 23 Feb. 1824, and the abolition of colonial slavery, 17 Mar., 26 May 1824.19 On 21 Feb. 1825 the mayor convened a public meeting to vote a petition in favour of the county courts bill, which Maberly presented, 3 Mar. 1825.20 That month clubs were established by the journeymen boot and shoemakers, following the repeal of the combination laws. The manufacturers refused to meet their demands and stalemate ensued for several weeks, many shoemakers having to rely on an emergency fund to provide food.21 The manufacturers petitioned the House, 3 May, protesting at the liberalisation of the law and arguing that the clubs and shoemakers’ general meetings were still illegal.22 On 8 May 1825 an anonymous cordwainer, claiming to represent 1,200 of his fellows, wrote to the home secretary Peel, claiming that the manufacturers had reneged on a promise to raise wages when conditions improved and that

another cause why we combined together was to keep ourselves independent at elections. It is well known that the masters combined to all except one or two individuals to force men to vote for the Whig interest at the last election, and by that means Earl Compton was thrown out of this borough ... We was obliged to return two Members that have supported the Catholic claims contrary to our principles altogether.23

Although the cordwainers soon resumed work, another dispute erupted in early 1826. The masters refused to meet their demands and the journeymen shoemakers, after several weeks, gave up.24 Both Members attended a public meeting for alteration of the corn laws at the Ram and spoke in favour of free trade, 21 Feb., following which Robinson presented the petition, 18 Apr. Petitions for the abolition of slavery and the repeal of duty on East Indian sugar reached the Commons, 1 Mar.25 The mayor presided at a town meeting, 10 May 1826, to consider starting a fund to help relieve the distressed manufacturing districts of Lancashire after the recent riots there. However, the meeting determined that the stagnation that Northampton faced was of more immediate concern, and although they sympathized with the Lancastrians, they started a fund to relieve their own townsmen, £421 being immediately pledged. The local press remarked, ‘This change of object, so obviously judicious and necessary, did not excite a single dissenting voice’.26

Without Lord Northampton to aid them, the Tories were left to find their own candidate for the approaching general election. A number of aldermen and some of the other leading figures convened a public meeting at the Dolphin in early February 1826, when they determined to open a subscription, get up a requisition to secure a Tory candidate, and appoint a committee to find one. A deputation visited Peel and asked if he could recommend a country gentleman, preferably one associated with the county. They had in mind Sir Robert Gunning of Horton, and Peel, knowing of no other, suggested that they try him, but Gunning reluctantly declined, fearing the expense of a contest. When William Henry Lytton Earle Bulwer* of Haydon Hall, Norfolk, offered his services, claiming to be ‘a friend to the present administration and a strong anti-Catholic’, Thomas Armfield, a member of the committee, wrote to Peel, 18 Feb., to ask

whether or not he is likely to fulfil his professions ... particularly in regard to the latter point, for upon that, any person offering ... must in a great measure rest his pretensions, the decided determination of a great body of the electors being not to give their suffrages to any candidate who will not pledge himself to vote against Catholic emancipation.

On 23 Feb. Peel replied, recommending George William Finch Hatton, who had been born at Kirby Hall, near Oundle.27 A deputation waited on him, but he declined, anticipating that he would soon succeed his ailing cousin the 9th earl of Winchelsea.28 Alderman Holt then brought an extraordinary resolution before the full corporation assembly, 26 May, proposing to pledge £1,000 towards the expenses of any candidate who would stand in the Tory interest. Only Alderman William Brown objected, and notice was given that the motion would be put to the vote before the next assembly. A second deputation, armed with the promise of the subsidy and a subscription of £3-£400, went to London and again saw Gunning, who still declined. They also looked for Finch Hatton, who was out of town, and went to Haverholme Priory, his Lincolnshire seat, to see him, but to no avail. Back in London they again consulted Peel, who could suggest no one else, and they turned to Gunning, who finally accepted their proposal.

At the 1826 general election Gunning duly came forward, citing his support for the Liverpool administration, attachment to the ‘constitution, church and state’ and hostility to Catholic relief, 30 May. Robinson and Maberly offered again a few days later.29 On 2 June Althorp, who had been in Northampton, informed his father:

From what I heard there I conclude that Robinson is quite safe, and that Gunning will be beaten. At present there is not a word said about Popery, and if Robinson’s people play their cards well there will not, for both parties want assistance from him, and fear his joining the other, therefore the Tories will be very cautious how they raise any cry which will force Robinson to make common cause with Maberly. I understand that Maberly made a capital speech yesterday and began the series of daily castigations which Gunning will undergo for the next fortnight.

Two days later he continued:

Both parties expect that Robinson will join them as soon as he is secure himself ... and Maberly’s speaking is beginning to tell in his favour and has already almost frightened the corporation out of their pledge to give Gunning £1,000.

He added that he had given a list of his father’s tenants to Edward Bouverie, who had secured all but one for Robinson. Spencer’s agent was ill, and Althorp could think of no other way to assist Maberly. He dined with Robinson at Delapré, 5 June, and told his father that while he was safe

Gunning has all the quality of Northampton, but Maberly has all the back lane gentry who do not give plumpers to Robinson. An attempt was made to halloo ‘No Popery’ on Friday night, but it failed entirely. Everybody, both his friends and foes, say that Gunning must be beaten unless Robinson joins him, which of course he will not do.30

Polling commenced, 12 June, and the Mercury noted that ‘this town has been in a feverish state of excitement during the whole of the present week’, while The Times reported that each day crowds of electors could be seen ‘reeling and staggering from pillar to post, their conduct annoying the more peaceable portion of the town’. After the close on the fourth day a stone was thrown at Maberly as he was addressing the crowd from the balcony of his inn. The culprit was seen to flee to the George, where Gunning was haranguing his supporters, and the mob that followed him pelted the inn with stones. Althorp, who was dining there after his return for the county, managed to restore peace by telling the crowd that they were ‘injuring the cause of reform’. Gunning was absent for much of the contest because of illness, but his kinsman Charles Ross, Member for Orford, stood in for him. Maberly’s father, after his own return for Abingdon, arrived on the final day to lend his support, and castigated the corporation for funding his son’s opponent.31 Robinson headed the poll throughout and the contest was between Gunning and Maberly, who steadily drew ahead. Robinson hailed his victory as proof that the inhabitants were the friends of ‘toleration and religious liberty’, while Gunning ascribed his defeat to ‘circumstances that are well known that prevented you from putting forth your real and entire strength’. Maberly celebrated his triumph with a dinner for his friends, 17 July, and Gunning’s friends entertained him and 400 guests, 11 Dec. 1826, after which a distribution of clothing was made to the poor.32 Of the 1,944 who polled, 1,137 (58 per cent) saw the contest in party terms, either splitting for the two Whigs, or plumping for the Tory. Robinson secured support from 69 per cent (839 as split votes shared with Maberly, 473 shared with Gunning and 36 as plumpers). Maberly received a vote from 58 per cent (224 shared with Gunning and 62 as plumpers) and Gunning from 52 (298 as plumpers). The election was dominated by the 974 skilled craftsmen, of whom 80 per cent polled for Robinson, 72 for Maberly and 36 for Gunning. Of the 582 boot and shoe workers in this category, 521 (90 per cent) voted for Robinson, 496 (85) for Maberly and only 110 (19) for Gunning. A similar preference was demonstrated by the 27 footwear manufacturers, 15 of whom split for him and Maberly, seven for him and Gunning, while two gave him plumpers. Maberly received one plumper and two divided between him and Gunning.33

Despite Gunning’s defeat, the corporation formally voted £1,000 towards his expenses at the next full assembly, which was not held until 15 Jan. 1827. Only two of its members, Brown and Charles Freeman, opposed the grant. Two petitions subsequently reached the Commons, one with over 600 signatures from the inhabitants, 14 Feb., and another from Brown which Maberly presented, 21 Feb.34 They accused the corporation of an ‘illegal, gross and flagrant misapplication’ of funds and ‘unlawful interference’ in the election. Maberly, moving for a select committee on the matter, 21 Feb., explained that it was a ‘palpable abuse’ and that the petitioners were appealing to the House as they had no remedy ‘at law or in equity’. He was backed by Althorp and Robinson, who said that the fact that ‘the returning officer belonged to that body who had supplied the money ... itself implied such a partiality, that the election could not have taken place under him with fairness’. However, Peel noted that the vote was to pay the legal expenses of the candidate and that the corporation had sought three legal opinions before engaging to give the money, and at his suggestion the committee was appointed to ‘inquire into the payment, or engagement for payment, of any sum for electioneering purposes’. Maberly was a member of the committee, which was chaired by Lord John Russell, and took evidence, 28 Feb., 5 Mar. Both Gunning and Finch Hatton (now 10th earl of Winchelsea) declined to appear.35 Brown told the committee that when Holt proposed to vote the money in May 1826, no mention was made of applying it to legal expenses alone, while the order to pay the £1,000 stated that it should come from funds at the corporation’s disposal ‘without prejudice to any charity or trust fund’. However, the deputy town clerk William Sawbridge acknowledged that the corporation had no surplus besides these funds to make such a payment. The three members of the deputation to Gunning admitted that when they saw him after the promise of money had been made they told him of it, but denied that it was the deciding influence on him, which was disputed by Brown. On 9 Mar. Maberly brought up the report, which, while it did not find the corporation guilty of any illegal act, recommended that the evidence be reported.36 Although the committee had concluded its proceedings, the corporation seemed unaware that no action would be taken, and the mayor, Daniel Hewlett, wrote to Peel, 18 Mar., seeking his help:

Persons in this borough under the influence of Colonel Maberly have so coloured up the proceedings ... that the persons in opposition to government really believe and don’t hesitate to say the corporation will be brought before the bar of the House to hear the displeasure which they entertain of the proceedings of the corporation ... We are held up to the ridicule and taunts of this opposition entirely from the matter not having been fairly before the House.

He also noted that they had obtained a copy of the petition and that it contained many forgeries.37 Several of those whose names had been fraudulently attached to the anti-corporation petition themselves petitioned the House, 11 Apr., when Maberly said that he would not obstruct an inquiry into their claims.38 The previous day he had introduced a bill to prevent the use of corporate funds for electoral purposes, which was eventually rejected by the Lords, 13 June.39 When the news of its defeat reached Northampton, 15 June, it produced a ‘lively sensation of joy among the friends of the corporation. The bells of several parish churches were rung’.40 (After more failed attempts, on 1 Aug. 1832 royal assent was given to a similar corporate funds bill, which the Whig Northampton Free Press asserted would finally end ‘the curse and misrule of the Tory administration’ in the town.)41 Further proceedings occurred when George Cooke, an attorney and friend of the two Whig Members, wrote a letter to The Times, 12 Dec. 1827, accusing the town’s magistrates (the mayor and two bailiffs) of prejudice against two tradesmen brought before them at the sessions because they had voted for Robinson and Maberly. Brown had also sworn an affidavit in king’s bench against the corporation’s actions in granting the money to Gunning and for partiality against Whig voters. The corporation instigated action against Cooke and Brown but both cases were discharged, each side being ordered to pay their own costs, which amounted to £350 for the corporation.42 At an assembly, 7 Aug. 1828, Holt moved for the production of the affidavit, and the meeting resolved that it was ‘extremely improper and incorrect’ and censured Brown, removing his aldermanic privileges. In 1832 Brown wrote a letter of apology, and the assembly rescinded its resolution and restored his rights.43

A Whig Club was established in early 1827, under the direction of the Rev. Benjamin Lloyd Edwards, a Dissenting minister, to counter the increasingly active Tory King and Constitution Club, which had been founded in 1823.44 During February 1827 the rival camps held meetings on the Catholic question, as a result of which favourable petitions reached the Lords, 1 Mar., and the Commons, 2 Mar. 1827, 28 Apr., 6, 12 May 1828, and hostile ones were presented to the Lords, 16 Mar. 1827, and the Commons, 6 Mar. 1827, 28 Apr. 1828.45 Petitions from the Dissenters for repeal of the Test Acts reached the Commons, 6 June 1827, 21 Feb. 1828, and the Lords, 14, 19 Feb., 28 Mar. 1828.46 On 9 Oct. 1828 a Brunswick Club was established under the chairmanship of a local doctor, Richard Nichol Staunton. Lord Westmorland, lord lieutenant of the county, declined an invitation to become its first president.47 Both Members supported the Wellington ministry’s concession of Catholic emancipation, for which petitions were presented to the Commons, 12 Feb., 3 Mar., and the Lords, 20, 23 Feb., 27 Mar., 7 Apr. 1829. Hostile ones reached the Commons from the corporation, 12 Feb., and the Lords from the inhabitants, 13 Feb., and the clergy, 16 Feb. The corporation resolved to address the king in protest at the bill, 10 Mar.48 On 27 Feb. John Marshall, the mayor, chaired a public meeting against having to pay full tolls for use of only the branch of the Grand Junction Canal.49 A Northampton petition for repeal of the corn laws and for economies in government expenditure was presented to the Commons, 28 May 1829.50 The distress which affected the country in early 1830 hit Northampton hard, and 1,600 families were, at one time, relying on the free distribution of coal and wood. They petitioned the Commons for relief, 16 Feb., and Robinson contributed £35 and Althorp and Cartwright £25 each to the distress fund.51 A petition from Northampton’s bankers for the abolition of the death penalty for forgery reached the Commons, 24 May. 1830.52

At the 1830 general election Robinson offered again, alluding to his votes for religious toleration and retrenchment and pledging his support for parliamentary reform. Maberly announced his retirement. Gunning came forward as a supporter of the Wellington ministry, indicating that he would back a limited reform, transferring seats from corrupt boroughs to populous unrepresented towns. He made it clear that he would pay nothing towards his expenses and a subscription was opened to defray his costs.53 On 9 July George Rice Trevor, Tory Member for Carmarthenshire, whose father-in-law Lord Charles Fitzroy† was a Northamptonshire landowner, arrived in the town and began canvassing. Althorp informed his father, ‘Whether he will persevere or not is doubtful, but his agent has been down and Alderman Brown has taken him up’. After making one brief speech, Rice Trevor abandoned the borough.54 On 12 July Charles Hill of Wellingborough, a chancery barrister and one of Lord Fitzwilliam’s legal advisors, started as a second Whig candidate. In his address, which affirmed that he stood on a platform of purity of election, he declared that ‘to purchase the privilege ... by the ordinary means of corruption, riot and disorder, would involve me in expenses which would neither be consistent with prudence or agreeable to my political principles’.55 There had been a division of opinion among the local Whigs and there was no coalition between Hill and Robinson.56 On 16 July Althorp told his father that ‘the contest is going on very quietly ... and without any spending of money. I think Hill has some chance’.57 The Mercury ‘rejoiced’ that ‘much of the animosity which prevailed at former elections, has scarcely shown itself on this occasion’.58 At the nomination, 2 Aug., the show of hands went against Hill, who demanded a poll, and at its close on the first day when he was in third place, he warned his supporters that unless they came forward more quickly, he would withdraw. On the morning of the second day, ‘in consequence of some tumultuous proceedings at the pollbooth, the mayor adjourned the court for one hour, during which the disturbance assumed a more serious character’. The mayor read the Riot Act, sent for two troops of dragoons and abandoned the poll for the day. The rioting continued, many being ‘severely injured, and one person, a Mr. Baines, a master-dyer, killed, by being either forced or thrown over the balcony of the Peacock Inn [Robinson’s headquarters]’. When the troops arrived ‘peace was restored and several of the rioters taken into custody’. The poll resumed on the third day, but late in the afternoon Hill resigned. The declaration was postponed until the next morning, when, after the return had been made, another disturbance occurred. Gunning was absent from the chairing because of illness and his brother took his place.59 (Despite his defeat, Hill remained popular among the Northampton Whigs, and on 7 Nov. 1831 a dinner was held in his honour, where he was presented with a plate, valued at 50 guineas, ‘as a token of respect for obeying the call of this town’.)60 A tea party for 400 women was held to celebrate Gunning’s success, 18 Aug. 1830, when a balloon, ornamented in his colours of purple and orange and bearing a banner inscribed ‘Victory, Sir Robert Gunning, the pride of Northampton’, was released.61

Robinson secured support from 72 per cent of the 1,919 who polled (782 as split votes with Gunning, 512 shared with Hill, and 82 as plumpers). Gunning received votes from 69 per cent (489 as plumpers and 44 shared with Hill), and Hill from 29 (ten as plumpers). Gunning was the preferred choice of all the social groups except the skilled craftsmen, who gave Robinson 871 votes and Gunning 654. Of the 657 boot and shoemakers in this category, Robinson was supported by 88 per cent, Hill by 54 and Gunning by 46. Of the 32 footwear manufacturers who polled, 13 divided their votes between Robinson and Hill and eight between Robinson and Gunning, while seven plumped for Robinson, and two for Gunning and two for Hill.62 Several weeks after the election Gunning’s supporters provoked a controversy when they published their pollbook, which had appended to it a list of electors who had not voted at the election but wished to register how they would have done so. Gunning’s committee claimed that they had taken this additional poll because Hill had resigned unexpectedly, when they still had a large number waiting to poll. Their pollbook revealed an extra 207 votes for Gunning, 87 for Robinson, and seven for Hill, and they consequently asserted that Gunning was the real winner. Robinson’s committee condemned it, declared that Hill’s intention to resign was well known, and noted that only the real poll counted, but nevertheless claimed that a careful examination of the additional voters still showed that Robinson would have a majority over Gunning. They concluded:

Sir Robert Gunning’s friends have had reason to thank those of Sir George Robinson for their forbearance during the late contest, if they wish for another trial of numbers let it be made in a real pollbooth and with real voters and then it might be seen what is the true power of the Northampton Tories against that of the reunited liberal party ... half of whose strength was not put forth at the late elections.63

In response, Gunning’s friends insisted that they had only undertaken the exercise after Robinson’s party had claimed that they had 400 unpolled voters. They also condemned the Whigs’ new Patriotic Union, which deducted a penny a week from the wages of workers to defray the expense of any future election, those refusing to pay being denied work. Exchanges along these lines continued for several more weeks in the Mercury.64

The proposed railways linking Birmingham and London, and Derby and London, aroused considerable interest in Northampton. A meeting held in the George was informed that a deputation of four gentlemen had visited the proposers of both, and that although they were told at Derby that plans were only tentative, the Birmingham project was further developed and intended passing within four or five miles of Northampton. The Birmingham committee also held out the prospect of a branch to Northampton. In response to a requisition, the mayor chaired a public meeting to discuss the matter, 2 Nov. 1830. Charles Markham, a local solicitor and member of the deputation, moved that the town should press for the branch and was seconded by Alderman John Marshall. The motion was passed unanimously, and a new deputation, including a number of aldermen, formally lobbied for a branch. The project provoked great opposition among the county landowners, who formed their own committee to combat it, and in February 1831 the corporation reconsidered its view and joined those actively opposed to the railway.65 Anti-slavery petitions from Northampton’s Dissenters reached the Commons, 5, 8, 10 Nov., and the Lords, 9, 16 Nov. 1830.66 On 9 Nov. a public meeting was held, chaired by the mayor, at which it was agreed to petition the Commons for repeal of the assessed taxes. Robinson presented it, 15 Dec.67 Robinson and Gunning took opposite sides in the civil list division which brought down the Wellington ministry, 15 Nov., and Gunning’s effigy was burnt in Northampton for his support of ministers, 22 Nov. Next day the mayor and magistrates, responding to the requests of a number of householders, swore in nearly 200 special constables. A detachment of troops arrived, 25 Nov. 1830, but the town remained quiet.68 In the first week of 1831 the first edition of the Northampton Free Press (its motto, ‘reform, retrenchment, peace’) was published. The editorial in its second issue advocated parliamentary reform, including the introduction of the secret ballot.69 A public meeting, 19 Jan., agreed to petition both Houses in support of the Grey ministry and reform. The petitions reached the Commons, 14 Feb., and the Lords, 17 Feb.70 However, the Free Press thought their wording was insufficiently strong, and another meeting was held at the Ram, 14 Feb., which backed a petition supporting economy and retrenchment and the introduction of the secret ballot. It received over 1,100 signatures and was presented to the Commons, 26 Feb., and the Lords, 28 Feb.71 At another public reform meeting, chaired by the mayor, 14 Mar., the resolution that there was a need for reform was carried unanimously, but that approving the specific proposals of the ministry was challenged by Markham. He read out an anonymous handbill that had been circulating in the town, which warned the poor that they would lose the right to vote by the £10 qualification, and asked them, ‘What! Will you cut your own throats because Lord Althorp offers to provide a razor gratis?’ He proposed an alternative resolution calling for a ‘temperate’ reform, but it was rejected and the original one was adopted. After the formal proceedings, Charles Wilkins of Shaftesbury, ‘an agitator’ who had been active in the recent Newark by-election, addressed the crowd. Both Members were solicited to support the petition, but when Robinson presented it, 19 Mar., Gunning said nothing. A similar petition reached the Lords, 21 Mar. Next day the Free Press reported that the town’s Tories, thinking that the bill would ‘deprive the small scot and lot men of their votes’, had become ‘the most violent radicals of the day, advocates for universal suffrage, storming with unabated fury at Lord John Russell’s reform bill’.72 Robinson divided for the second reading of the bill, 22 Mar., when Gunning opposed it. On 24 Mar. Gunning issued an address to his constituents informing them of his ‘fruitless attempts’ to speak in the debate and outlining his opposition to the bill, but indicating his support for a more moderate measure. At a meeting to consider the conduct of the Members, 28 Mar., Gunning was severely criticized for his votes on the civil list and reform, and a vote of censure was passed. ‘We think Sir Robert may bid his friends goodbye ... when the next election arrives’, predicted the Free Press.73 Gunning’s friends rallied to his cause, and a letter approving his conduct was circulated and signed by 500, which the Free Press scoffed at, alleging that ‘every effort which ingenuity can devise has been resorted to, to obtain signatures’.74 Anticipating a dissolution, the Northampton Whigs held a meeting, 8 Apr., to find a colleague for Robinson. They determined to invite Maberly back to the borough, and a requisition of 1,144 names was forwarded to him, 14 Apr., but he declined, being already pledged to contest Surrey. On 13 Apr. another Whig meeting decided to merge the Whig Club and the Patriotic Union to form the Northamptonshire Constitutional Union, modelled on the Birmingham Political Union.75 The Northamptonshire county reform meeting was convened at the shire hall, 13 Apr., and Gunning was one of those in attendance. (Robinson was absent through illness.) After considerable uproar, the sheriff, Beriah Botfield, ignoring the protests of Gunning and Cartwright, adjourned to the market place and pouring rain. The Tories refused to attend and repaired to an inn to draw up a letter of protest. In their absence a letter from Robinson approving the reform bill was read out, and among the many Whigs addressing the crowds (including Hill) was Robert Vernon Smith, Member for Tralee. At the conclusion of business, Robert Otway Cave, Member for Leicester, urged the electors to look to Smith to replace either of the Tory representatives of the county or town. The town Whigs heeded the advice and invited Smith, who had property near Thrapston, to stand. He accepted and had to use all his persuasive powers to convince the poorly Robinson that he should come forward once more.76

At the 1831 general election Robinson and Smith duly came forward in a ‘Blue party’ coalition. Gunning offered again as an anti-reformer. Smith arrived, 25 Apr., and made a long speech lampooning Gunning and advocating the bill. As he was concluding, Gunning started to address a group of his supporters from another inn on the market square, but was forced to give up when it appeared that the peace was threatened by the agitated crowd.77 On 27 Apr. James Lyon of nearby Dallington, a captain in the army, started as a second anti-reform candidate, explaining that he could not stand by and see his friend Gunning ‘assailed by a coalition’.78 Although Robinson appeared and spoke at the nomination, Althorp’s brother Robert Spencer and Bouverie did his canvassing for him. Both Whig candidates made much of the king’s approval of reform. After the close of the third day’s polling, the Rev. Francis Litchfield of Farthinghoe delivered ‘a very violent and declamatory speech’, predicting Gunning’s victory, which provoked an hour’s stone throwing and fighting. Next day Gunning’s agent complained to the assessor that some of their voters had been prevented from voting because they had been locked up by the Blues. The assessor responded by declaring that the poll would be kept open for as long as necessary, but polling was very slack and at midday he announced that he would soon make the proclamation. Markham and Samuel Chase, Gunning’s attorneys, demanded a scrutiny ‘on the grounds that a great fraud must have taken place by polling persons with no connection with the town’. They backed the claim with a requisition of 800 signatures. After going over the lists next day, the mayor agreed that there were sufficient grounds to grant a scrutiny and ordered the sealing of the pollbooks. Smith, according to the Free Press, was ‘exceedingly caustic in reprobating the unfair course which had been pursued by agents of Gunning and Lyon’.79 The scrutiny commenced on 16 May and concluded on the 30th. Initially Gunning seemed happy with it and predicted his ultimate triumph, but as it progressed he became disenchanted and on its conclusion wrote a long letter to the Mercury complaining of its irregular proceedings. It rejected 187 votes in all (118 for Robinson, 104 for Smith, 84 for Gunning and 6 for Lyon), but did not alter the result. After the chairing, 31 May 1831, Robinson attacked the ‘trickery’ of the ‘rump of the Tory party’, while Gunning complained that he had been opposed by ‘the weight of government and of a treasury candidate’ and ‘by a coalition of parties and of two purses, backed by all the influence which the chancellor of the exchequer [Althorp] possessed’.80

Of the 2,404 who polled, Robinson secured support from 65 per cent (1,235 shared with Smith, 327 with Gunning, and eight plumpers). Smith received votes from 53 per cent (40 shared with Gunning and four plumpers), Gunning from 48 per cent (605 plumpers and 185 shared with Lyon), and Lyon from eight per cent (all shared with Gunning). Robinson was again the first choice of skilled craftsmen (76 per cent), retailers (64) and merchants and manufacturers (63). Of the 755 boot and shoemakers who polled, 654 (87 per cent) polled for Robinson, 613 (81) for Smith, 146 (19) for Gunning, and 12 (two) for Lyon. Of the 53 footwear manufacturers, 36 divided their votes between the Whigs, 12 plumped for Gunning, three split for Robinson and Gunning and two split for Gunning and Lyon.81 Gunning petitioned, 4 July 1831, alleging bribery and corruption by both his successful opponents, and claiming that the scrutiny had been prematurely terminated. He withdrew this petition the next day in favour of one against the return of Smith only, but abandoned this too, 18 July.82 Smith later admitted that he had spent £4,000 in the campaign.83 On 11 July Lord Chandos presented a petition from some Northampton electors complaining of the use made of neighbouring barracks to receive, treat and accommodate the supporters of the Whig candidates at the election.84 Sir Thomas Fremantle, Tory Member for Buckingham, alleged that they had been locked up there until they promised to vote for the reformers, while Ross charged Smith’s agents with ‘resorting to every species of threat’. Smith replied that it had been customary for the supporters of ministerial candidates to be so housed to help keep the peace, as Gunning’s had been in 1826 (a fact disputed by Ross), and claimed that he had ordered the electors to be released as soon as he learnt what was going on. He also alleged that the petition was orchestrated by ‘a notorious anti-reformer’ in whom little trust could be placed. Charles Tennyson, clerk of the ordnance, stated that the government were satisfied that there had been no impropriety and that the barrack master had been severely reprimanded.

On 22 Sept. a meeting was held to petition the Lords urging them to pass the reform bill, which was presented, 30 Sept. 1831.85 The Members, as was customary, each donated ‘a fat buck’ to the dinner held to celebrate the investiture of the new mayor, 29 Sept. However, the ‘Tory rabble yelled, groaned, and hissed’ the traditional toast to their health until it was withdrawn, prompting the Free Press to remark that ‘the corporation ... cannot forget its defeat; its bitterness and its rancour is displayed on every petty occasion’. A petition from Northampton’s Tories against the ‘daringly experimental’ reform bill was presented to the Lords by Westmorland, 4 Oct.86 The defeat of the bill in the Lords provoked a requisition to the mayor, signed by 150, for a meeting to address the king expressing confidence in ministers. A letter from Smith, who was unable to attend, was read out at the gathering, which unanimously agreed to the address, 19 Oct.87 On 12 Nov. 1831 a new paper, the Northampton Herald, was launched to help restore ‘the confidence and support of the Conservative party’. It briefly reactivated the Tory party in the town and several Gunning Clubs were founded.88 The formerly Tory Mercury began to support the reform bill in April 1832.89 A petition to both Houses against the general register bill was got up at a meeting but apparently went no further, 11 Jan. 1832.90 That month the Herald reported that Robinson would be made a peer in order to help push the reform bill through the Lords, and that the Whigs had carried out a private canvass in anticipation of a vacancy. They added that the Whigs would employ their usual tactic of bribery, paying by the ‘Miller of Wallingford’ method after the time for petitioning had expired.91 Nothing came of this. A petition for the abolition of slavery reached the Lords, 4 June.92 The enactment of the reform bill was celebrated with a dinner, 28 June, which Smith attended. However, illness prevented Robinson’s presence, and in November 1832 he announced his retirement.93

Reform made no alteration in Northampton’s representation or boundaries. The boundary commissioners reported that according to its rate books, the town had 1,047 £10 houses, but they suspected that the real number was higher.94 In the event the registered electorate was 2,497, of whom 1,410 chose to retain their ancient right qualification and 1,087 enrolled for the new £10 household franchise. Two-thousand-four-hundred-and-six polled at the 1832 general election, when Smith was returned with the Tory Ross, following a split in the Liberal ranks.95 The warnings given by the Tories about the effects of the Reform Act were in part borne out: the electorate gradually diminished over time, and there were only 1,815 names on the register in 1851, despite the population having risen to 26,700.96 The town was contested at every general election for the rest of the century, Smith being returned at the next seven, but after Ross’s re-election in 1835 a Tory did not succeed again until 1874.97

Authors: Martin Casey / Philip Salmon


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 560.
  • 2. on scrutiny
  • 3. Ibid. (1835), xxv. 557.
  • 4. V.A. Hatley, ‘Aspects of Northampton’s Hist.’, Northants. Past and Present, iii (1965-6), 243.
  • 5. Ibid. 251; PP (1835), xxv. 565.
  • 6. PP (1835), xxv. 570-71.
  • 7. Hatley, 248.
  • 8. Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC8/41.
  • 9. Althorp Letters, 101.
  • 10. Northampton Mercury, 4, 11 Mar. 1820.
  • 11. Grey mss.
  • 12. J.C. Cox, Northampton Borough Recs. ii. 510.
  • 13. Northampton Mercury, 11, 18 Mar. 1820.
  • 14. Northampton Pollbook (Freeman, 1820).
  • 15. Northampton Mercury, 2 Sept., 18 Nov., 2, 23 Dec. 1820.
  • 16. Ibid. 20, 27 Jan., 3 Feb. 1821; CJ, lxxvi. 22.
  • 17. The Times, 18 Apr. 1821, 1 June 1822; CJ, lxxvii. 304.
  • 18. CJ, lxxviii. 215; lxxx. 314; LJ, lvii. 619, 796, 810.
  • 19. CJ, lxxviii. 285; lxxix. 173, 216; Northampton Mercury, 28 Feb., 20 Mar. 1824.
  • 20. Northampton Mercury, 19 Feb., 5 Mar. 1825; CJ, lxxx. 157.
  • 21. Northampton Mercury, 2 Apr. 1825.
  • 22. CJ, lxxx. 369.
  • 23. Add. 40377, f. 394.
  • 24. Northampton Mercury, 14, 21 May 1825, 25 Feb. 1826.
  • 25. Ibid. 18, 25 Feb. 1826; CJ, lxxxi. 114, 254.
  • 26. Northampton Mercury, 13 May 1826.
  • 27. Add. 40385, ff. 240, 242.
  • 28. Unless otherwise indicated the section dealing with the events of 1826-7 is based on PP (1826-7), iv. 341-57.
  • 29. Northampton Mercury, 3 June 1826.
  • 30. Althorp Letters, 127-8.
  • 31. Northampton Mercury, 10, 17 June; The Times, 20 June 1826.
  • 32. Northampton Mercury, 24 June, 1, 22 July, 16 Dec. 1826.
  • 33. Northampton Pollbook (Cordeux, 1826).
  • 34. CJ, lxxxiii. 208, 302.
  • 35. Unless otherwise indicated details of the proceedings of the select committee are based on PP (1826-7), iv. 341-57.
  • 36. CJ, lxxxii. 301-2.
  • 37. Add. 40392, f. 303.
  • 38. CJ, lxxxii. 409.
  • 39. Ibid. 405, 422; LJ, lix. 403.
  • 40. Northampton Mercury, 16 June 1827.
  • 41. Northampton Free Press, 4 Aug. 1832. For the history of the bill see P. Salmon, ‘"Reform Should Begin at Home": English Municipal and Parliamentary Reform, 1818-1832’, in Partisan Politics, Principle and Reform in Parliament and the Constituencies, 1689-1880 (2005) ed. C. Jones, P. Salmon, R. Davis, 93-113.
  • 42. The Times, 25 Dec. 1827, 9 Feb.; Northampton Mercury, 14 June 1828; PP (1835), xxv. 565.
  • 43. Cox, 510.
  • 44. Hatley, 249; Northampton Mercury, 20 Dec. 1823.
  • 45. Northampton Mercury, 24 Feb. 1827; LJ, lix. 16, 168; CJ, lxxxii. 264, 281; lxxxiii. 277, 319, 343.
  • 46. CJ, lxxxii. 520; lxxxiii. 90; LJ, lx. 43, 52, 145.
  • 47. Northampton Mercury, 11 Oct. 1828; Wellington mss WP1/960/12.
  • 48. CJ, lxxxiv. 24, 98; LJ, lxi. 31,40, 61, 70, 300, 367; Northampton Mercury, 14 Mar. 1829.
  • 49. Northampton Mercury, 28 Feb. 1829.
  • 50. CJ, lxxxiv. 346.
  • 51. Northampton Mercury, 13 Feb. 1830; CJ, lxxxv. 46.
  • 52. CJ, lxxxv. 463.
  • 53. Northampton Mercury, 3 July 1830; J. A. Phillips, Great Reform Bill in the Boroughs, 162.
  • 54. Althorp Letters, 152; Northampton Mercury, 10 July 1830.
  • 55. Northampton Mercury, 24 July 1830.
  • 56. Hatley, 249.
  • 57. Althorp Letters, 153.
  • 58. Northampton Mercury, 17 July 1830.
  • 59. Ibid. 7 Aug.; The Times, 6 Aug.; Althorp Letters, 153-54.
  • 60. Northampton Free Press, 5 Nov. 1831.
  • 61. Northampton Mercury, 21 Aug. 1830.
  • 62. Northampton Pollbook (Freeman, 1830).
  • 63. Northampton Mercury, 28 Aug. 1830.
  • 64. Ibid. 4, 11, 18 Sept. 1830.
  • 65. Ibid. 6 Nov., 25 Dec. 1830; Northampton Free Press, 22 Feb. 1831.
  • 66. CJ, lxxxvi. 38, 47, 52; LJ, lxiii. 30, 32, 70.
  • 67. Northampton Mercury, 13 Nov. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 176.
  • 68. Northampton Mercury, 27 Nov., 4 Dec. 1830.
  • 69. Northampton Free Press, 4, 11 Jan. 1831.
  • 70. Ibid. 25 Jan. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 176; LJ, lxiii. 233.
  • 71. Northampton Free Press, 15 Feb., 1 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 310; LJ, lxxiii. 263.
  • 72. Northampton Free Press, 15, 22 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 406; LJ, lxiii. 345.
  • 73. Northampton Free Press, 29 Mar. 1831.
  • 74. Northampton Mercury, 2 Apr.; Northampton Free Press, 5 Apr. 1831.
  • 75. Northampton Free Press, 12, 26 Apr.; Northampton Mercury, 16 Apr. 1831.
  • 76. The Times, 16 Apr.; Northampton Free Press, 19 Apr. 1831.
  • 77. Northampton Free Press, 26 Apr. 1831.
  • 78. Northampton Mercury, 30 Apr., 7 May 1831.
  • 79. Northampton Free Press, 10 May 1831.
  • 80. Ibid. 10, 17, 24, 31 May, 7 June; Northampton Mercury, 28 May, 4 June 1831.
  • 81. Northampton Pollbook (Cordeux, 1831).
  • 82. CJ, lxxxvi. 610, 621, 672, 676.
  • 83. Hatley, 248.
  • 84. CJ, lxxxvi. 639.
  • 85. Northampton Free Press, 27 Sept. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1024.
  • 86. Northampton Free Press, 4 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1058.
  • 87. Northampton Free Press, 29 Oct. 1831.
  • 88. Phillips, 162; Northampton Herald, 18 Feb., 10 Mar. 1832.
  • 89. Northampton Mercury, 21 Apr. 1832.
  • 90. Northampton Free Press, 14 Jan. 1832.
  • 91. Northampton Herald, 21, 28 Jan. 1832.
  • 92. LJ, lxiv. 262.
  • 93. Northampton Free Press, 16, 30 June, 1 Dec. 1832.
  • 94. PP (1831-2), xl. 161.
  • 95. P. Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work, 255, 259.
  • 96. PP (1835), xxv. 557; Hatley, 243, 249.
  • 97. Phillips, 166-73, deals with Northampton elections up to 1841.