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 freeholders and freemen

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 230 in 18311

Number of voters:

135 in 1826


2,023 (1821); 1,508 (1831)2


 HENRY PRITTIE, Bar. Dunalley [I]
16 June 1820JOHN CAMPBELL, Lord Glenorchy vice Savile, vacated his seat
2 June 1824WILLIAM HENRY TRANT vice Dunalley, vacated his seat
 Sir Francis Molyneux Ommaney
30 July 1830EDWARD ADOLPHUS SEYMOUR, Lord Seymour
29 Nov. 1830AGAR ELLIS re-elected after appointment to office
14 July 1831SIR RICHARD RAWLINSON VYVYAN, bt. vice Trant, vacated his seat

Main Article

Okehampton, a small market town situated in the valley of the River Oke, close to the northern edge of Dartmoor, had been a ‘great centre’ for the manufacture of serges and other coarse woollens, but this had declined by the 1790s. Many of the inhabitants were engaged in agriculture, particularly sheep farming, and the town’s economy was otherwise ‘dependent on its markets and fairs’. Several improvements were carried out during this period, including the erection of a ‘commodious’ market house in 1826 and the removal of the ‘old shambles’ from the street.3

The borough was wholly contained within but not co-extensive with the parish. Local administration was conducted by the corporation, which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, eight principal and eight assistant burgesses, who all held their offices for life. The franchise was in the owners of certain ‘freehold tenements’, which had ‘immemorially ceded ... a right’ of voting, and in the freemen, who obtained their privilege through birth or apprenticeship; 48 of the 126 freemen voters were non-resident in 1831. However, the nomination to both seats was in the hands of the lord of the manor, Albany Savile of Oaklands, whose family had acquired a controlling interest in the borough in 1807 and consolidated it with subsequent purchases. Savile used his freehold properties to create ‘faggot’ votes, and of approximately 100 freehold voters in 1831 79 were non-resident. He was also the recorder, and, through a system of loans and ‘allowances’, had achieved a position where he effectively ‘nominated the officers and ... members of the corporation’, turning that body into a tool for ‘the preservation of [his] parliamentary influence’. It was alleged that Savile and the corporation deliberately discouraged the introduction of new industries into the town, for fear of creating an ‘opposing political influence’. The potential existed throughout this period for conflict between the resident freemen and the Savile interest. A satirical poster of 1823 purported to advertise an auction of ‘horses and other implements of corruption’: the horses were the present Members and prospective candidates, and the implements included ‘a lot of corporation gowns ... sold cheap ... to make up a sum found wanting to replace sundry charitable donations, most uncharitably disposed of’, ‘faggot deeds’ and ‘a lot of old bribery promissory notes (not out of date)’.4

In 1820 Savile, who was independent in his politics, returned himself and the Irish peer Lord Dunalley, a paying guest who supported Lord Liverpool’s ministry. Later that year Savile made way for Lord Glenorchy, the Whig heir of the 4th earl of Breadalbane, and in 1824 Dunalley retired in favour of the Irish landowner William Trant, another ministerialist. In November 1820 a ‘partial illumination’ took place, contrary to the mayor’s wishes, to celebrate the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline. The residences of the attorney Henry Hawkes, the druggist Aaron Bazley and ‘a few others’ were ‘well lighted up’ and ‘the populace ... after regaling themselves with a hogshead of cider ... quietly dispersed’.5 Petitions from the corporation and inhabitants for repeal of the coal duties were presented to Parliament in 1823, 1824 and 1825.6 At the dissolution in 1826 a challenge to the Savile interest emerged when the freemen were requested, ‘by public advertisement’, to withhold their promises while an ‘independent gentleman’ was found. This proved to be Sir Francis Ommaney*, a Tory, but he came bottom of the poll behind two landowners, Sir Compton Domville and Joseph Strutt, who declared their support for the constitution in church and state. Polling details have not been found, but it was later stated that 135 had voted, and Domville and Strutt thanked their supporters who had been prevented from voting by Ommaney’s ‘retiring from the contest’.7 The inhabitants petitioned Parliament in defence of the corn laws, 22, 26 Feb. 1827.8 Both Members opposed Catholic emancipation in 1829, but the issue did not provoke any reaction in the borough. In July 1830 a ‘Mr. Kirwan’ declined to stand after canvassing, but it was predicted that Okehampton would be ‘smartly contested’ as ‘another gentleman’ had offered ‘in opposition to the patron’. However, the ‘cause of independence’ suffered a setback when illness forced Captain Pringle, possibly the son of Sir William Pringle, Tory Member for Liskeard, to withdraw, although his friends pledged their continued support for his campaign to ‘emancipate’ the borough ‘whenever the opportunity shall again present itself’. Two moderate Whigs, Lord Seymour, the heir of the 11th duke of Somerset, and George Agar Ellis, the heir of the 2nd Baron Mendip, were returned unopposed. The sickly Agar Ellis, who had apparently learned of the vacancy through George Fortescue*, spent a day canvassing ‘in excessive heat and under the rays of a most powerful sun’; he awoke during the night with an ‘attack of diarrhoea’ and was ‘so unwell in the morning’ that he ‘could not attend the election’.9

In the autumn of 1830 a protracted dispute between Savile and the inhabitants over an area of common land used for grazing sheep came to a head when he had it ploughed up and the corporation failed to take action. On 25 October, the day of the mayor’s annual perambulation, the ‘exasperated’ inhabitants organized a rival procession, or ‘opposition spurling’. This was ‘an imposing sight’, consisting of ‘a numerous body of the sons of freemen’, a band, a ‘champion of liberty ... mounted on a white charger’, and ‘about 80’ freemen and inhabitants on horseback, all sporting the pink colours of the ‘independent party’. Placards suggested that their cause was being linked to that of slave emancipation. The evening was spent ‘with much conviviality’ at Bazley’s house, where speeches were made ‘on the freedom and independence of the electors’. These proceedings were regarded as ‘preliminary steps to the opening up of this borough, which will certainly be attempted at a future election, with much probability of success’.10 Savile chaired a public meeting, 10 Nov., when the attorneys William Burd and Thomas Luxmoore moved that anti-slavery petitions be sent to both Houses. The currier William Ashley, while supporting the motion, complained that ‘this business had been got up for a particular purpose’, but Savile, alluding to a handbill circulating in the town, maintained that he was simply ‘doing his duty as chairman’. The petitions were agreed unanimously but not presented; one from the Wesleyan Methodists was forwarded to the Commons, 11 Nov. 1830.11 On Savile’s death, 26 Jan. 1831, his estate passed to his eldest son, Albany Bourchier Savile, a minor; the Rev. Henry Wrey, vicar of Okehampton, Hannibal Millett, a corporator, and William Walton of London were named as the trustees.12 The inhabitants sent petitions to both Houses for reform and the ballot, 4, 7 Mar., but on 13 Apr. they and the electors petitioned the Commons against the Grey ministry’s bill, which proposed to disfranchise Okehampton.13 Seymour voted against the second reading but later returned to the Whig fold. Agar Ellis, a junior minister, forwarded a ‘memorial’ from the borough to Lord John Russell, stating the case for extending its boundary to the parish and transferring it to schedule B, and this was agreed on 18 Apr. 1831.14 Nevertheless, at the ensuing dissolution ‘the Savile interest ... determined on sending two Tories’. Charles Buller*, lately Whig Member for West Looe, ‘canvassed the town ... but met with no encouragement’, and Trant and John Hope, ‘advocates of moderate reform [who] could not bring themselves to support’ the government’s ‘sweeping measure’, were returned unopposed. Russell regretted that ‘Okehampton has been lost for want of time to prepare an opposition’.15 Trant retired shortly afterwards to make way for Sir Richard Vyvyan, the leader of the Ultra Tories. The borough remained in schedule B of the reintroduced reform bill, and the freemen, freeholders and householders petitioned the Lords for its speedy passage, 4 Oct. 1831.16 However, the new criteria applied in the revised bill of December 1831 consigned Okehampton to schedule A again, as it contained 318 houses and paid £324 in assessed taxes, placing it 52nd in the list of the smallest English boroughs. The resident freeholders, freemen, and sons and apprentices of freemen petitioned the Lords against disfranchisement, 5 Apr. 1832, arguing that ‘their lordships will be ensuring to a portion of the working classes, the tradesmen and artificers, that share in the representation to which they are justly entitled as their birthright’.17 Their pleas were to no avail, and Okehampton was absorbed into the Northern division of Devon.

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 563.
  • 2. Ibid. 54. The figure for 1821 is for the parish.
  • 3. Syle’s Barnstaple Herald, 9 May 1826; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 225-6; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 20-21; E. Young, Okehampton, 76-77.
  • 4. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), iii. 297-8; PP (1830-1), x. 91; (1831-2), xxxvi. 563; (1835), xxiii. 557-60; Devon RO, Luxmoore mss 314M/SS3/18.
  • 5. Alfred, 21 Nov. 1820.
  • 6. CJ, lxxviii. 285; lxxix. 242; lxxx. 110; LJ, lv. 651; lvi. 150.
  • 7. The Times, 31 May; Alfred, 6, 13 June; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 8 June 1826; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 563.
  • 8. CJ, lxxxii. 216; LJ, lix. 106.
  • 9. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24, 31 July, 7 Aug.; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 5 Aug.; Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 14 June, 27-30 July 1830.
  • 10. Western Times, 6 Nov. 1830; PP (1835), xxiii. 459.
  • 11. Western Times, 13 Nov. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 56.
  • 12. PROB 11/1790/543.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxvi. 347, 482; LJ, lxiii. 291.
  • 14. Agar Ellis diary, 15, 16 Apr. 1831.
  • 15. Alfred, 3 May; N. Devon Jnl. 5 May; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 5 May; Add. 51680, Russell to Lady Holland [3 May 1831].
  • 16. LJ, lxiii. 1054.
  • 17. Ibid. lxiv. 148.