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 of burgage properties

Estimated number qualified to vote:

59 in 18311


1,328 (1821); 1,419 (1831)2


28 Feb. 1823JAMES COCKS vice Cocks, vacated his seat.
13 July 1831CHARLES PHILIP YORKE vice Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke, deceased.
15 Dec. 1831CHARLES PHILIP YORKE re-elected after vacating his seat.

Main Article

Reigate, a ‘small but remarkably neat’ market town, was situated on a branch of the River Mole, in the east of county, on the London to Brighton road. Apart from its ‘thoroughfare importance’, it was ‘a place of but little trade’ and there were ‘no manufactures’. However, it was reported in 1831 that the town contained a disproportionately large number of gentlemen’s residences.3 The borough covered only a small area, about 65 acres, at the centre of the parish, the remainder of which was known as ‘the foreign’. The joint patrons were Philip Yorke, 3rd earl of Hardwicke, and John Somers Cocks†, 2nd Baron Somers, the lord of the manor, at whose court leet the bailiff, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, was appointed; their families had shared the representation since the 1720s. According to the bailiff’s statement in 1831, the franchise was vested in ‘persons who are seised of the freehold of ancient messuages or burgage tenements, or of messuages built on sites of ancient messuages or burgage tenements’. In reality, these freeholds were ‘granted ... to friends’ of the patrons, and though the beneficiaries were apparently obliged to carry evidence of their grants at elections, they did not have to produce it. Somers’s agent, Ambrose Glover, reported with some arithmetical imprecision that of the 59 qualifying properties, 25 were controlled by Hardwicke, 24 by Somers and 11 by independents; the boundary commissioners could find only eight resident electors. The patrons’ families had intermarried several times, and they co-operated closely in the management of the borough, taking their proprietorial duties seriously. Even Robert Waithman, the radical Member for London, whose country residence was near Reigate, admitted to the Commons, 18 Feb. 1831, that Hardwicke and Somers had exercised their influence to the satisfaction of the inhabitants. The Members, as a local historian noted, were ‘expected to contribute handsomely to local objects’. Since the claimed right of election had never been under the scrutiny of Parliament, detailed lists were maintained of the parchment, or ‘occasional’ voters, and of the supporters and opponents of the patrons among the independent electors, in readiness for a possible challenge. Hardwicke’s former steward, William Bryant, who had been sacked for defalcation, was identified as the most likely source of trouble. Nevertheless, the patrons continued to return their relatives unopposed, and in 1820 these were Hardwicke’s half-brother and Somers’s son; both gave general support to Lord Liverpool’s ministry. In 1823 Somers, who had been raised to an earldom two years before, nominated his cousin to fill his vacant seat.4

The inhabitants sent up anti-slavery petitions to the Commons, 16 Mar. 1824, 10 Apr. 1826.5 Early in 1828 Somers pledged his support for the duke of Wellington’s ministry, and the following year he gave the duke his proxy, to support the Catholic emancipation bill.6 Cocks voted for this measure, in accordance with his previous views, and Yorke came round to supporting it; the borough was silent on the matter. In 1828 Hardwicke, possibly anticipating a future opposition, gave orders for house repairs to be carried out (derelict dwellings were classed as ‘sites’, which did not confer voting rights), and for tenants without leases to be given notice to quit. The following year, apparently unsuccessful negotiations were entered into to buy out Bryant and another freeholder named Jekyll.7 There was no hint of any trouble in the communication between the two agents, prior to the general election of 1830, but it seems that Cocks was ‘obliged to attend almost all’ the proceedings.8

The freeholders, landholders, householders and inhabitants petitioned the Commons for parliamentary reform, 26 Feb. 1831.9 Two days later, Somers’s son Lord Eastnor maintained in the House that Reigate had been ‘perfectly free from corruption of any kind for the last 50 years’. However, the Grey ministry’s reform bill proposed its complete disfranchisement, on the basis of the borough’s population. Glover privately complained about the preferential treatment given to nearby East Grinstead, which was set to retain a Member because of its parish population, and the bailiff, Thomas Martin, accordingly forwarded to the home secretary, Lord Melbourne, details of the population for the ‘foreign’ part of Reigate parish.10 In the revised disfranchisement list, announced to the Commons on 18 Apr., Reigate was moved to schedule B, which Lord John Russell believed did it ‘ample justice’, given the bailiff’s earlier statement that the borough and ‘foreign’ were ‘as distinct as two ... parishes in all respects’. Both Members opposed the second reading of the bill, although Yorke was absent from the division on Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment. At the ensuing dissolution Sir Joseph Yorke offered again but Somers’s Member, Cocks, retired; his nephew Joseph Yorke replaced him. Glover wrote to Hardwicke’s London agent, John Parkinson, recalling their earlier idea of ‘forming a corps of 25’ electors, but regretted that owing to various circumstances, ‘the number of our friends will be very short ... not more than eight’; he hoped that Hardwicke could supply the deficiency. In a reference presumably to Bryant, Glover added that while ‘a certain gentleman may be showing off ... we ought to be as showy as may be, and you have the means’. As it seemed possible that a poll would be demanded, he emphasized the need for electors to know the location and present occupiers of their freeholds, and in order ‘that our friends may not be puzzled on these points I have prepared the form of a card to be put into their hands’. In the event, no opposition materialized and the election passed off quietly.11

Within days of the sudden death of Sir Joseph Yorke, in May 1831, Alexander Donovan of Framfield, Sussex, an ardent reformer and unsuccessful candidate for Lewes and Rye, arrived in the borough to commence a canvass, accompanied by a Mr. Burt. According to Glover, Donovan promised to demand a scrutiny if he could poll a single vote, to test his contention that the parchment votes were invalid and that the true right of election lay in the freeholders at large. He met with a curt refusal of his audacious bid for support from Somers (who in any case had no claim on the seat), and Joseph Nash, Hardwicke’s local agent, reported that his hopes were at an end following rebuttals from two independent freeholders, both innkeepers, who profited handsomely from patronal munificence at elections. Hardwicke’s brother, Charles Yorke, nonetheless advised the employment of counsel at the election and the investigation of likely sources of support for Donovan; Sir Edward Sugden*, a Sussex resident, was approached for information on the latter point. To forestall a challenge, Hardwicke wanted an early announcement that his nephew Charles Philip Yorke, the late Member’s son, would offer, and he assured his brother, 19 May, that Somers was exerting himself ‘to counteract the effect of anything which Mr. D. may do’. He was ‘sure our families, from what we have done for the town, ought to stand better with the people of the place than any man who comes ... to oppose us’. While anxious that they should be prepared to meet him on the hustings, Hardwicke correctly suspected that Donovan was ‘a mere bully’, who would not venture to a poll.12 Contrary to the patrons’ suspicions, Bryant had taken no part in this attempt to open the borough, but news of Donovan’s exertions evidently revived his interest and from his address in London he attempted to intrigue with Hardwicke’s agents against the Cocks family. Chief among the indignities he claimed to have suffered at Somers’s hands was the virtual demolition of two of his borough houses, just before the previous election, to nullify their burgage status. Among a bizarre litany of allegations and threats, he claimed that Somers wished ‘to be rid of the Yorke concern altogether’, and he wondered how the families’ coalition could survive in a single Member borough. Parkinson, plainly unimpressed, did not respond to Bryant’s request for the date of the by-election, which he consequently missed, and which evidently passed off without incident. Afterwards, Bryant told the agent that Reigate had ‘no population’ to justify its continued borough status, and he claimed to have stalled the presentation of a petition for total disfranchisement by Henry Hunt, ‘solely on the Yorke account’.13 Hunt’s objections in the Commons, 30 July, to Reigate being placed on the same footing as Guildford, the county town, were weakened by his ludicrously low estimate of its number of £10 houses, which was easily answered by Eastnor. That autumn Somers abandoned his opposition to the reintroduced reform bill, accepting that it was a political necessity and acknowledging to the prime minister that ‘aristocratical and democratical, landed and commercial interests, are pretty fairly joined in it’.14 There was no hint of trouble at the by-election in December 1831, occasioned by Charles Philip Yorke’s temporary resignation in order to (unsuccessfully) contest a vacancy for Cambridgeshire; the total expenditure was £325.15

The new criteria adopted in the revised reform bill of December 1831 confirmed Reigate’s position in schedule B, as it contained 256 £10 houses and paid £910 in assessed taxes, placing it 67th in the list of the smallest English boroughs. The boundary commissioners recommended that the borough be extended to the parish, after considering the addition of the adjacent rural parishes of Betchworth and Buckland, but rejecting this on the grounds that the first was too large and the second too small to permit their inclusion. Bryant alleged that Somers, the dominant landowner in the new constituency, had interfered to ensure this outcome, and he tried to press the Yorke interest into demanding a further extension of the borough. He maintained that there had been ‘trickery’ in the calculation of the assessed taxes, and ascribed the high figure to ‘the number of gentlemen’s houses’ mentioned in the commissioners’ report, a document which he dismissed as ‘nearly all untrue’.16 Interestingly, Glover had informed Parkinson in May 1831 of his endeavours to ‘show as many £10 houses within the parish as may be’, adding that ‘I daresay you are aware of it being a great object to do away [with] the necessity of adding any other parishes’. His most optimistic calculation was that there were 119 qualifying properties in the old borough and 103 in ‘the foreign’.17 The Commons confirmed Reigate’s position in schedule B without discussion, 23 Feb. 1832. There were 152 registered electors at the general election that year, making Reigate one of the smallest surviving English boroughs. Bryant’s address to the electors, 28 Nov. 1832, proved futile and Eastnor was returned unopposed; the Cocks family monopolized the representation for the next quarter of a century. Despite Bryant’s continued efforts to make common cause with him, Hardwicke quietly withdrew from Reigate and sold his interest to Somers.18 The borough was disfranchised in 1868.

Author: Howard Spencer


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 60, 61.
  • 2. Ibid. xl. 37.
  • 3. Ibid. 35-37; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1832-4), 990, 991.
  • 4. PP (1830-1), x. 122-3; (1831-2), xxxvi. 60-61, 481, 572; xl. 35-37; Herts. Archives, Caledon mss D/E Cd E165, 168 (voters lists); E172, Glover to Parkinson, 26 Dec. 1831, 11 Jan. 1832; W. Hooper, Reigate, 121-3, 174, 195; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 383, 384.
  • 5. CJ, lxxix. 168; lxxxi. 223.
  • 6. Wellington mss WP1/914/15; 991/20; 1009/22.
  • 7. Add. 35698, ff. 356, 360; Caledon mss E167, Hardwicke to Parkinson, 13 Mar. 1829.
  • 8. Caledon mss E165, Glover to Parkinson, 20 July; Herefs. RO, Biddulph diary, G2/IV/J/5, 29 July 1830.
  • 9. CJ, lxxxvi. 310.
  • 10. Caledon mss E172, Glover to Eastnor, 3 Mar., to Yorke, 10 Mar. 1831; PP (1830-1), x. 122, 123.
  • 11. Caledon mss E168, Glover to Parkinson, 28 Apr. 1831.
  • 12. Surr. Hist. Cent. 176/5/1a-g, 3f, 3n; Add. 45034, f. 169.
  • 13. Surr. Hist. Cent. 176/5/1h, 1j, 2c-e.
  • 14. Grey mss, Somers to Grey, 26, 29 Sept. 1831.
  • 15. Surr. Hist. Cent. 176/5/3u.
  • 16. PP (1831-2), xl. 35-37; Surr. Hist. Cent. 176/5/2f-g.
  • 17. Surr. Hist. Cent. 176/5/3a-b.
  • 18. Ibid. 176/5/2h, 2j; Hooper, 123.