Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in inhabitant householders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 820 in 18311

Number of voters:

699 in 18302


4,447 (1821); 4,832 (1831)3


 JOHN SAVILE, Visct. Pollington416
 Thomas Slingsby Duncombe376
 John Hardy415
 Robert Torrens337
2 May 1831JOHN SAVILE, earl of Mexborough [I] 

Main Article

Pontefract, a market town situated near the confluence of the Rivers Aire and Calder, in the West Riding of the county 13 miles south-east of Leeds, had ‘never ... been noted’ as a centre of manufacturing, but a ‘considerable trade’ in malt was carried on there and it possessed an ‘excellent’ general trade, which was ‘much advanced by the highly respectable neighbourhood’.4 The borough was coextensive with the township, but it covered only about one third of the parish. Local power was exercised by the corporation, a self-electing body which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, and 12 other aldermen; an unspecified number of burgesses (36 of whom were resident in 1835) enjoyed few privileges. The corporation appears to have had only limited electoral influence, owing to the unusually wide householder franchise (finally settled in 1793), which meant that a high proportion of residents had the vote. Pontefract was open and venal: Lord Pollington, the heir of the 2nd earl of Mexborough of nearby Methley Park, spent over £13,000 fighting two contests in 1812.5 He offered again in 1820, by which time he had abandoned his earlier Whiggish politics, together with his colleague Thomas Houldsworth, a wealthy Manchester cotton manufacturer and local mill owner, whose opinions remained unclear. They were forced to a poll by the arrival of the radical rake, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe* of Cogrove, who was apparently well received and entertained ‘hopes of success’; it was later said that he had ‘spent much money in bribery’. Little evidence of the proceedings has been found, but in what seems to have been a quiet contest Houldsworth led the poll throughout, while Pollington moved ahead of Duncombe on the second day and remained there. A local newspaper subsequently reported that Houldsworth had ‘commenced paying his voters ... by giving them three guineas each’, with ‘one guinea more ... to be given at the ... races’.6

A public meeting chaired by the mayor, Thomas Oxley, agreed to organize an anti-slavery petition, which was presented to the Commons, 28 Feb. 1826.7 The same month Pollington, who had supported Lord Liverpool’s ministry and voted against Catholic relief, announced at his father’s behest his intention of retiring at the next dissolution. To secure a replacement his lawyers wrote to the home secretary Peel, asking him to name ‘a firm supporter of our glorious constitution ... in church and state’, and explaining that ‘any respectable gentleman of these principles will be supported by the friends of Lord Pollington and will be elected in his stead’, at a cost that ‘will not exceed £3,500’. They maintained that Houldsworth, who had revealed himself as a Tory, was ‘greatly out of favour with the electors’, presumably owing to his pro-Catholic votes, and that if two suitable candidates could be found it was ‘very probable he will be turned out’. Unfortunately, ‘none of our neighbouring gentlemen who are supporters of government and opposed to emancipation’ were ‘disposed to offer’. They also warned that Edward Petre* of Stapleton Park, ‘a Catholic of Whig principles’, was ‘endeavouring to prevail upon some of his friends’ to come forward. Peel was unable to help.8 Meanwhile, certain electors had invited Martin Stapylton of Myton Hall, near Boroughbridge, to stand, and preparations were made for his visit to the town. A procession of ‘at least 500 voters’, headed by ‘two splendid flags’ on which were inscribed ‘Stapylton forever’ and ‘No Slavery’, set off to meet him at Ferrybridge, only to discover that he had changed his mind and left for home; ‘no persuasions could induce him to return’. The Leeds Mercury claimed that two men at the Doncaster races had ‘falsely represented’ to Stapylton that ‘none but the lowest rabble would meet him’ at Ferrybridge and that the proceedings were a ‘complete hoax upon him’. However, according to another newspaper account, a deputation had informed him that they ‘expected to be bribed, contrary to the spirit of the invitation which he received from them’. John Hardy of Heath, near Wakefield, the recorder of Leeds and chief steward of the honour of Pontefract, also received an invitation to stand. On visiting the town, 22 Feb., he observed that his ‘education’ and ‘habits’ as a lawyer ought to ‘qualify [him] for the office of legislator better than most’. He expressed support for the abolition of slavery, but declined to give ‘any distinct pledge on either side’ of the Catholic question, though it was pointed out that he had signed a pro-Catholic petition from the bar the previous year. During the first week of March Hardy began his canvass and ‘met with the warmest reception and promises of zealous support’. Houldsworth’s committee, alerted by this activity, ensured that he arrived in the town promptly, but the Mercury suspected that ‘popular feeling was now running in another direction’. A third candidate, Le Gendre Nicholas Starkie of Huntroyde, Lancashire, had appeared, proclaiming his determination to ‘uphold the Protestant establishment’ and to ‘maintain a contest while a man could be brought to the poll’; the popular cry was reportedly ‘Hardy and Starkie forever’. By the end of April, one elderly elector had already died from ‘excessive intoxication’, and the Mercury lamented:

We are afraid that a very demoralizing process is at present going on at Pontefract ... Not only numbers of the free and independent electors themselves, but many of their wives and children, are contracting inveterate habits of dissipation at the cost of the candidates, some of whom give almost daily entertainments; and it is no uncommon thing, indeed it is an affair of daily occurrence, to find decent looking women begging of the agents tickets to obtain bottles of spirits at the public houses, for the purpose of drinking at their own firesides, with the wives of their neighbours. It is expected that the contest, if carried on in the same spirit as at present, will cost each of the candidates £8,000 at least.

It seemed that Houldsworth, ‘owing to the skill’ of his agents, had ‘become quite the popular candidate’, and his election was ‘now considered certain’.9 On the hustings Houldsworth, who was nominated by John Perfect, professed his ‘zeal and affection’ for the electors. Starkie, who had given white hats to all of his supporters, was introduced by William Hepworth and promised to ‘do my duty like a man’. Hardy, who was sponsored by Robert Pemberton Milnes, a former Member, declared that the poll would be a ‘test’ of the electors’ ‘sincerity’. By one o’clock Starkie was already comfortably ahead, with 215 votes to Hardy’s 155 and Houldsworth’s 147. The contest between Hardy and Houldsworth remained close until 3 o’clock, when the latter pulled decisively ahead; Hardy retired that evening. No pollbook has survived, but it was reported that ‘a great majority’ of the electors had given split votes to Starkie, as the ‘third man’. The Leeds Intelligencer attributed his success ‘mainly ... [to] his determined Protestant feeling’ and claimed that Houldsworth had ‘barely escaped defeat’, in the ‘absence of a proper rival’. More bluntly, the Mercury observed that Starkie was ‘perfectly unknown to the electors, but that was a matter of indifference, he was the third man and was sure to be supported for the sake of a contest’; he had also been helped by the ‘great exertions of his committee’. Hardy had been induced to ‘spend a large sum of money’, having apparently ‘received 650 absolute promises during his canvass’, only to find himself ‘betrayed by those who had pledged themselves as friends’. As for Houldsworth, he was ‘too liberal on all occasions not to be popular’. It was later stated that 31 votes had been allowed from persons resident in the surrounding rural district.10 Three electors petitioned against the return, 29 Nov. 1826, alleging that Starkie did not possess the necessary property qualification, and accusing him and Houldsworth of bribery and the mayor of partiality, but a Commons committee confirmed the Members in their seats, 14 Mar. 1827.11

The Dissenters petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Test Acts, 19 Feb. 1828.12 In 1829 Houldsworth, who had changed his stance on the Catholic question, presumably in response to constituency pressure, voted against the Wellington ministry’s emancipation bill, while Starkie, an inactive Member, was absent. Surprisingly, Pontefract was silent on the matter. The inhabitants presented a petition to the Commons against renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 15 Mar. 1830.13 At the dissolution that summer Starkie quietly retired and Houldsworth, who had been expected to stand again, offered instead for Newton. It was reported that new candidates were ‘very backward in coming forward’ and that the town was ‘perfectly quiet except ... at noon and after working hours in the evening’, when ‘there are scattered up and down the market place knots of independent electors in deliberation, more or less deep’. John Nicholas Fazakerley, the Whig Member for Lincoln, confessed to a friend that ‘I cannot summon up the courage to encounter Pontefract’. Hardy was approached, but replied that he had ‘determined to bid adieu forever to all thoughts of the representation ... at least on such terms as I well know it alone can be had at present’. Several other names were mentioned, including William Lascelles*, son of the 2nd earl of Harewood, William Dickson of Beal House and Thomas Clark of Knottingley Hall, but none came forward. Finally, Sir Culling Eardley Smith of Bedwell Park, Hertfordshire, a kinsman of Wellington, offered himself in succession to Houldsworth, and was deemed by another relative to have ‘a fair chance’. Robert Torrens, the political economist, who had been unseated on petition at Ipswich in 1827, also agreed to stand, and appeared in the town with Smith in a carriage and four. Petre, now sheriff of Yorkshire, declined to come forward, but introduced his brother-in-law, Henry Valentine Stafford Jerningham of Costessey, Norfolk, a fellow Catholic. With a contest assured, ‘the bells began a merry peal’ and ‘a large body of electors’ set off for Ferrybridge to meet Stafford Jerningham. Meanwhile, a meeting of the Pontefract Anti-Slavery Society had resolved to urge the electors to vote only for those candidates who would pledge support for abolition. Smith conducted his campaign so vigorously that he was unable to continue on the second day, though he resumed his efforts on the third and reportedly ‘had a most promising reception’. Of Stafford Jerningham, who claimed to stand for ‘the cause of loyalty, liberty and independence’, the Mercury reported that his ‘unassuming but fascinating manners made him an universal favourite, particularly with the ladies, who have great influence on these occasions’, and another newspaper was informed that ‘no doubt exists as to his return’.14 Smith was nominated by Colonel Gooch and Perfect, Stafford Jerningham by William Lee of Grove Hall and Alderman Walton, and Torrens by Darcy Lever and William Beaumont. Smith gave no pledges but he eulogized Wellington and expressed the hope that Britain would avoid interference in the affairs of France. Stafford Jerningham declared that he was greatly impressed by the ‘very deep and general feeling’ in the town in favour of ‘the total abolition of slavery’. He advocated ‘strict’ retrenchment, but said he would not indulge in factious opposition to any government. He was pleased to observe that he had ‘not heard a single word on their difference of religion from more than one or two individuals’, and promised to do nothing to weaken the Church of England. Torrens condemned slavery, called for an equalization of the sugar duties and rejoiced that no anti-Catholic sentiments had been manifested. Soon after polling commenced he addressed the crowd again, calling on them to ‘come forward and vindicate their independence’, for ‘if they did not they would lose the opportunity of wiping off the calumny of being a venal set of men’. Stafford Jerningham’s agent objected, and the assessor ruled that there should be no more speeches during the poll. Torrens’s appeal failed to move the electors and he remained in third place throughout the day, eventually retiring at 5.30. Although Smith headed the poll, in which 699 had voted, the Mercury maintained that Stafford Jerningham ‘could have polled between 100 and 200 more’. Torrens announced his intention of standing again, but added that he would ‘take care to come close on the eve of the election in order to prevent those scenes of revelry and feasting which had been witnessed during the week’. In a subsequent letter to Wellington, he claimed that he had contested Pontefract on the understanding that he would receive the split votes of government supporters, but while Smith had supported this arrangement, the electors had cast their second votes for Stafford Jerningham.15 Torrens petitioned against the return, 16 Nov., accusing Stafford Jerningham of bribery, but the latter was confirmed in his seat, 16 Mar. 1831.16

Anti-slavery petitions were sent up to the Commons by the Wesleyans and the Independents, 5, 11 Nov. 1830, and the inhabitants petitioned for a day of public humiliation, fasting and prayer, 15 Feb. 1831.17 The Grey ministry’s reform bill of March 1831 proposed no change in Pontefract’s representation: Stafford Jerningham supported the measure, but Smith, though accepting the need for some reform, voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment. At the ensuing dissolution Stafford Jerningham stood again but Smith retired and Pollington, now Lord Mexborough, ‘offered on the same interest’. The Mercury reported that whereas Stafford Jerningham ‘met with scarcely one refusal’ during his canvass, many of the electors ‘entirely refused’ to support Mexborough, ‘on account of his opposition to the [reform] bill’. However, the subsequent proceedings proved to be ‘very tame and very dry’, as several attempts by deputations of reformers to bring forward a ‘third man’ came to nothing; Grey’s son-in-law, Charles Wood*, was one of those who declined an invitation. In his published address Stafford Jerningham defended his vote against Wellington’s ministry on the civil list, which had been prompted by the duke’s ‘famous declaration’ against reform, and argued that the ‘distemper’ in the country was ‘deeply seated and ... required a remedy of an effectual nature’, though he was satisfied from the reception given to the bill that no ‘revolutionary spirit’ existed among the people. He promised to give a reintroduced measure his ‘hearty and cordial support’ and also praised the government’s efforts to reduce the tax burden on the poor. Mexborough, for his part, claimed to be in favour of reform. On the hustings Stafford Jerningham was again sponsored by Lee and Walton, and Mexborough was introduced by Joseph Smithson and W. Pymont. When the mayor asked if there were any other candidates, the maltster Francis Barker, one of the petitioners against Houldsworth and Starkie in 1826, pressed Mexborough to pledge himself to the ‘whole bill’, indicating that he would otherwise nominate another reformer. Mexborough explained that he was ‘friendly to reform’ but could not pledge support to the government’s ‘unjust and impolitic’ measure. He added that he would ‘most willingly vote for retrenchment’ and measures to lighten the tax burden on the poor. Barker’s threat proved to be empty and Mexborough and Stafford Jerningham were declared elected and chaired.18

By the provisions of the Boundary Act the borough’s limits were extended to include the area known as Pontefract Park, the Castle precincts, and the townships of Tanshelf, Monkhill, Knottingley, Ferrybridge and Carleton. There were 948 registered electors in 1832, of whom 418 were £10 householders.19 Houldsworth considered standing again at the general election of that year, but he was returned instead for North Nottinghamshire. Stafford Jerningham, who did offer, wrote to his mother in October that ‘the Tories have been trying to prevail on a son of Lord Harewood to bleed ... without success’, and later added that ‘Torrens’s old committee support me’. Mexborough was forced to withdraw before the poll by the intervention of another Liberal, John Gully, who ‘spent his money profusely’ and was returned unopposed with Stafford Jerningham.20 The latter retired in 1834 and the vacancy was filled by Mexborough’s son; thereafter the representation was usually shared until Pontefract’s disfranchisement in 1885.

Author: Martin Casey


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 83.
  • 2. Ibid. 567.
  • 3. Ibid. xxxvii. 81.
  • 4. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1828-9), 1041-2; PP (1835), xxv. 271.
  • 5. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 83; (1835), xxv. 265-71; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 454-7.
  • 6. T.H. Duncombe, Life of Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, i. 84; Leeds Mercury, 20 May 1820.
  • 7. Yorks. Gazette, 29 Feb. 1826; CJ, lxxxi. 111.
  • 8. Add. 40385, ff. 217, 218.
  • 9. Leeds Mercury, 18, 25 Feb., 11 Mar., 29 Apr.; Yorks. Gazette, 29 Feb. 1826.
  • 10. Leeds Intelligencer, 8, 15 June; Leeds Mercury, 10, 17 June; The Times, 10 June 1826; PP (1831-2), xl. 197.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxii. 43, 44, 119, 127, 128, 161, 291-3, 313.
  • 12. Ibid. lxxxiii. 83.
  • 13. Ibid. lxxxv. 179.
  • 14. Fitzwilliam mss, J.W. Childers to Milton, 18 July; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. G2/18, Fazakerley to Milton, 24 July; Leeds Mercury, 10, 17, 24 July; Leeds Intelligencer, 14, 29 July 1830.
  • 15. Leeds Intelligencer, 29 July, 5 Aug.; Leeds Mercury, 31 July, 7 Aug. 1830; Wellington mss WP1/1149/24.
  • 16. CJ, lxxxvi. 96, 377, 385.
  • 17. Ibid. 39, 105, 254.
  • 18. Leeds Mercury, 30 Apr., 7 May; Leeds Intelligencer, 5 May 1831.
  • 19. PP (1831-2), xl. 197-8; (1835), xxv. 265, 271.
  • 20. Staffs. RO, Stafford Jerningham mss D641/B/P/3/14/68, 69; Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 4 Dec. 1832.