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

Background Information

Estimated number qualified to vote:

over 6,000

Number of voters:

4,124 in 1820


22 Mar. 1820WALTER BURRELL2419
 Charles Compton Cavendish1867
1 July 1826WALTER BURRELL2116
 Sir Godfrey Webster, bt.1188

Main Article

Sussex was broadly divided into a northern strip, an extension of the Kentish Weald, which was ‘thickly wooded’ and yielded large quantities of timber, and the South Downs, a ‘range of green open hills’ which ‘afforded excellent pasture for sheep’ and was ‘in some parts ... fertile in corn’. Manufacturing was ‘neither various nor extensive’.1 By tradition, the parliamentary representation was shared between the eastern and western divisions, and elections were held either at the centrally placed town of Lewes or at Chichester, depending on the location of the next county court on the sheriff’s receipt of the writ. From 1818 to the passage of the Reform Act it so happened that they all took place at Chichester, some 80 miles from the most remote eastern parishes. The expense and inconvenience which this caused gave great dissatisfaction, as three consecutive elections went to a poll. This upsurge in political activity was related to profound demographic changes taking place in the county, arising from the development of Brighton and other seaside resort towns, which led to an influx of small urban freeholders to the county electorate. The new urban interest was unwilling to submit to the quiet selection of Members by an aristocratic caucus, and the near success of a candidate supported by them in 1807 had signalled the threat to the hegemony of the landed elite. Increasingly, the crucial political divide was less between east and west, and more between town and country. With the exception of the 12th duke of Norfolk, a Whig and a prominent Catholic, the landed magnates were united both in their Tory outlook and their unwillingness to take a lead in county affairs. The 3rd earl of Ashburnham, the leading figure in the east, by his own admission ‘sedulously avoided ... to attract public notice’, owing to his ‘constitutionally morbid indolence and reserve’; the 2nd earl of Chichester, once the county’s ‘man of business’, now pleaded his government office as an excuse for inactivity; the 1st earl of Sheffield’s involvement was limited by his advanced age, while the 5th duke of Richmond’s time was yet to come (he only succeeded to the title in 1819). Even the principal landowner, the 3rd earl of Egremont, was a reluctant politician who only grudgingly accepted the lord lieutenancy in 1819 and later claimed that he had never felt ‘any great eagerness about politics or party’. Nevertheless, he was largely responsible for the return of his relative, Walter Burrell of West Grinstead, as the western Member. Burrell was never the object of a specific challenge during his tenure of the seat, as his parliamentary conduct satisfied most men of substance in the county, but the same could not be said for his eastern colleague, Sir Godfrey Webster of Battle Abbey. Webster had been elected in 1812 with the support of the magnates, on the understanding that he would support Lord Liverpool’s ministry. To the chagrin of his sponsors, he became an outspoken radical and gained a reputation as a philandering gamester, who attended the Commons only when it suited him. The failure of the landed interest to unite behind an alternative candidate enabled Webster to survive in 1818, aided by the squad of radical voters in Chichester, but another challenge to his position was expected at the next opportunity.2

In February 1820, following the death of George III, Webster made a pre-emptive move, issuing an address in which he denounced the Six Acts as ‘arbitrary, uncalled for, and a most ill-timed and dangerous innovation of the constitution’, and avowed his determination to stand on his record of opposition to them.3 Sheffield judged that ‘if Sir Godfrey had a respectable friend in the county, his exquisite address must have dismissed him’, but plans to oppose him were not well advanced and Sheffield lamented that ‘we are without sailor, rudder and everything is left to fate’. Egremont’s disgust at the outcome of the previous election had led him to determine, as a westerner, not to become embroiled in eastern affairs, but on receiving a feeler from Ashburnham, he impressed on him the extent of Webster’s unpopularity:

Brighton, where Sir G. was supposed to have some friends, is decidedly averse to him. All the respectable persons dislike his politics and his private life. He did not pay his bills last time, and their disgust is increased by seeing his wife, a beautiful and engaging woman, living there alone, and, it is said, almost expelled from Battle Abbey by a rival, seduced or ravished from your scullery, so that if you take up arms now, it will be quite a Trojan war.

Ashburnham replied that Webster was ‘almost universally abhorred and execrated’ in the east, and alleged that the baronet’s financial affairs were so desperate that ‘he must either get into Parliament or get out of the kingdom’. Frustrating this aim, he believed, was ‘within the power of any individual of a tolerably respectable family in Sussex’.4 However, persuading a suitable candidate to come forward was no easy matter, and Sheffield’s metaphoric description of the county as ‘a cracked sheet of ice that no person of weight will try’ was justified by the number of local worthies who felt unequal to the task. Lord Liverpool, in collusion with Egremont and William Huskisson, Member for Chichester, had urged his half-brother Charles Cecil Jenkinson* to consider coming forward earlier in February; his refusal to do so was ascribed by Sheffield to his ‘peculiar aversion to expenditure’. This motive partly accounted for the failure of Webster’s predecessor John Fuller† of Rose Hill to offer again, though he was also constrained by an earlier pledge of support he had given to Webster and feared, so Egremont claimed, ‘a thrashing’ if he broke it. The Lewes Member Sir John Shelley* could not be enticed to come forward, and Davies Gilbert* of Eastbourne and Sir Charles Blunt* of Heathfield were considered to be too new to the county, the handicap that had wrecked the candidacy of Edward Burtenshaw Sugden* of Slaugham in 1818.5 Ashburnham resisted Egremont’s entreaties to offer his son Lord St. Asaph, then abroad, but acted on another of his suggestions in turning his persuasive powers upon his neighbour Edward Jeremiah Curteis of Windmill Hill. Curteis, a lawyer who had appropriately enough built his landed estate largely through purchases from Webster, was a comparative unknown, though he belonged to a family long resident on the Sussex-Kent border. Ashburnham recommended him to Sheffield as ‘a useful magistrate’ for whom county business was ‘his delight and recreation’. He doubted whether his estate was ‘second to that of any landed proprietor’ in Sussex, and vouched for his ‘giving [such] a general support to administration as can in reason ... be expected from a county Member’. Curteis was confident that he stood ‘pretty well with the freeholders of the two most eastern rapes’, but his biggest concern, predictably, was the possible expense, given the uncertainty as to whether Webster would persist. The prospect of support from Chichester and Sheffield was held out, and news of a requisition from several important western freeholders calling for a new eastern candidate finally convinced him to stand.6 His address, which appeared before the western requisition was published, included conventional disavowals of partisanship and professions of concern for the agricultural interest, but it also bluntly condemned Webster’s stance against the Six Acts, asserting that this had met with the ‘general disapprobation of the county’. While the home secretary Lord Sidmouth reported that the address was ‘highly approved of in government circles’, Ashburnham admitted that he would have preferred a ‘less explicit’ form of words, to keep the opposition to Webster ‘as much as possible personal’ and avoid provoking the leading Whigs of the county, Norfolk and Lord George Cavendish*. He lamented the ‘ill humour’ that had been excited, and could ‘not see how the duke ... and the radicals can submit to us without a battle’.7 In the aftermath of the Cato Street conspiracy Curteis was as hopeful as his sponsors of an easy ride against Webster, but the latter stole a march on the aristocratic phalanx by mounting an early canvass in the west, contrary to the usual rules of engagement. Curteis, acknowledging that his rival was stronger than he had first allowed, warned that ‘the cry is insidiously Curteis and Webster in the west’. Concern that Burrell’s election might thus be placed in jeopardy led Chichester to advise that he and Curteis should ‘join openly and fight the battle boldly upon public principle’; Egremont agreed, predicting that they would face only a ‘nominal’ poll. A joint address was duly issued, 4 Mar., in which Burrell and Curteis defended the Six Acts but pledged to ‘abridge no liberty, except that of subverting loyalty and morals, and of promoting rebellion, assassination and murder’.8 However, the notion that opposition would melt away in the face of this coalition was misconceived. Webster contemptuously characterized it, from Curteis’s viewpoint, as ‘give me your aristocracy and take my purse’, and he emphasized the popular nature of his own campaign. In fact, his Chichester committee consisted of a tailor, a cobbler and a carpenter, and his opponents conceded the extent of his appeal to ‘the little people’. More significantly, the coalition furnished a pretext for Cavendish, whose interest in Sussex derived from his wife’s estate at Eastbourne but who had hitherto taken little part in county affairs, to intervene. On 6 March his younger son Charles Compton Cavendish*, having failed to find a seat elsewhere through his cousin the duke of Devonshire, issued an address, in which he noted the threat to the ‘independence of the county’ posed by the coalition and blandly professed to espouse ‘the principles of my family’. Devonshire’s man of business, James Abercromby*, anticipated that Webster would now withdraw and that the aristocratic coalition would cease to hold behind Curteis.9 Curteis’s political gaucherie had indeed begun to test the patience of his sponsors, whom he deluged with hectoring letters, demanding assurances about financial backing, the progress of the election and his personal safety. These sounded an increasingly desperate note after the intrusion of Cavendish, whose financial resources he imagined to be limitless, and he variously accused Burrell, Egremont and the government of culpable inactivity. Egremont recorded privately that on closer acquaintance he disliked Curteis ‘as much as possible’, and in an attempt to head off a contest he secretly met with the Cavendishes and their supporter William Stephen Poyntz* of Cowdray, probably on 8 March. Regretting that Charles Cavendish had not come forward sooner, Egremont stated his obligation to support Curteis as long as he remained in the field, but held out an offer of support if he was cowed into submission, as seemed likely. Egremont believed that in return he had secured a promise from Lord George to withdraw his son if Curteis stood firm, an interpretation which Lord George evidently did not share. In any case, other magnates were not party to Egremont’s intrigue, and for the likes of Ashburnham and Sheffield any reservations about Curteis were overcome by their resentment at the unexpected interference of the Cavendishes. Ashburnham dismissed it as too late to be effective, and encouraged Curteis to stand his ground. For the government, too, abandoning Curteis would have occasioned considerable loss of face, whatever his personal shortcomings. As Charles Arbuthnot*, the patronage secretary, informed Huskisson:

We are all greatly alarmed for the result in Sussex, and your letter to me does not tend to inspire confidence ... We have written to and pressed everybody who has been named either in your letters or in those of Mr. Curteis. His pour in upon us, and you must teach him a little discretion. He has addressed a letter publicly to the treasury: in another he states that he is fighting the cause of the Pavilion ... All this ought to be stopped.

No mercy was afforded to Curteis by the squib writers, who characterized him, in language typical of the campaign, as ‘the fawning sycophant, the niggardly miser, the upstart purse proud nobody’.10 For the time being Webster remained in the contest and effectively opened a second front at New Shoreham, where he set up his brother Henry to vex Burrell’s brother Sir Charles. Ashburnham wondered if ‘the deep seated and inveterate jealousy [between] ... the east and the west is at once to be superseded by party spirit’, as joint handbills were issued for Webster and Cavendish, ostensibly both eastern candidates. They avoided explicit coalition, though the accusation was levelled against them and attempts were made to exploit the Cavendish family’s support for Catholic relief. Webster finally withdrew on the eve of the poll, 12 Mar. 1820, but urged his supporters to vote for Cavendish, ‘whose political principles are in unison with my own’.11

At the nomination meeting Ewan Law†, an eastern freeholder sympathetic to Burrell and Curteis, entered a formal protest at the election being held at Chichester. Precedent and the weight of legal opinion were strongly against him, and the sheriff dismissed the complaint. Burrell and Curteis themselves requested an adjournment of the poll to Lewes after the western freeholders had polled, which might have been sanctioned but for the objection of Cavendish, who presumably hoped to emulate Webster’s Chichester coup in 1818. The nomination must have given him encouragement, as he beat Curteis on a show of hands and paraded some notable converts among the speakers in his cause. Sugden, Webster’s opponent in 1818, now revenged himself on the aristocracy who had then snubbed him by promising Cavendish a plumper. Sir Robert Stopford, who seconded Cavendish in the absence of Poyntz was, in the words of an enraged Egremont, ‘Tory up to the chin’ and ‘wallowing in Court favours’. The choice of Shelley, an avowed supporter of Cavendish, to nominate Burrell, amounted to an admission of the folly of the coalition, which Burrell sought to justify, though he recognized that it had given ‘great offence’. Curteis professed himself friendly to moderate measures of parliamentary reform, but promised ministers general support. Both he and Huskisson turned the charge of aristocratic interference back on Lord George Cavendish, who spoke on his son’s behalf.12 Burrell and Curteis led throughout the nine-day contest. Their chief supporters were always sanguine, but kept up the pressure on recalcitrants. Agents reported the reluctance of some voters to travel in stage coaches and a shortage of saddle horses, which was blamed on their being taxed. Curteis, in the words of his reluctant colleague, was ‘quite beside himself during the election’. Targets for his anger were disloyal attorneys, Fuller (whom he supposed to be neutral) and even the freeholders who came to vote for him: ‘all make me pay, none have the zeal to come of themselves, even the clergy must be treated’. Ever fearful for his personal safety, he reported that ‘the radical spirit in the towns is most excessive and the mob are most dreadful’. At Chichester the cry of ‘red herrings and small loaves’ (a reference to the insensitive efforts at poor relief by a local clergyman) was directed at him, and there were violent incidents at Brighton, prompting Curteis to express concern for the king’s safety.13 Sir Benjamin Bloomfield†, the king’s secretary, was moved to observe that ‘the importance of the struggle for a vote ... in the House sinks into comparative insignificance when compared with the question whether the rabble of the towns shall prevail over the property of the county’. On the other hand, the antiquarian and diarist Gideon Mantell of Lewes, who voted on the seventh day, formed a different impression of the proceedings:

On our arrival in Chichester we were met by a large body of the friends of Mr. Cavendish, who conducted us to the poll. Six men, fantastically dressed in the colours of Mr. Cavendish, walked on each side of our carriage and a band of musicians with banners, etc., preceded us. Caesar in the midst of his triumphs would not have been received with greater enthusiasm.

On that day, for the only time, Cavendish led the daily poll. Fearing a deluge of town votes, Curteis urged Sheffield to mobilize unpolled freeholders in the rural north-east, warning that ‘the flag of distress is abroad’ and that they were engaged in a battle for ‘the protection of property against the destruction meditated by radicals against it, and against morals, religion and ... all good government and order’.14 His panic was unjustified and, as had been anticipated in Whig circles, Cavendish retired at the end of the eighth day, blaming defeat on his late entry to the contest; the poll was formally closed the following morning. Curteis’s committee claimed to have 500 freeholders in reserve. Ashburnham’s pleasure at the result was tarnished by the discovery that ‘there exists in the towns within this county as ferocious a spirit of radicalism as in any of the most essentially manufacturing districts throughout the United Kingdom’, and Huskisson feared that ‘the infection of radicalism, which is prevalent in the towns, is gradually making its way into the villages’.15

From the published pollbook, which contains some discrepancies, it appears that 4,124 freeholders were polled (over 300 more had their votes disallowed), of whom 60 per cent gave a vote to Burrell, 55 per cent for Curteis and 45 per cent for Cavendish. The clear party schism was illustrated by the fact that Cavendish secured 1,579 plumpers (85 per cent of his total), whereas Curteis had 72 and Burrell only 53. Burrell and Curteis received 2,132 split votes (88 and 94 per cent of their respective totals), while Burrell and Cavendish shared 234 votes (ten and 13) and Curteis and Cavendish 54. The east-west division was irrelevant to such a contest: Burrell polled best in the east and Cavendish in the west. Some 200 non-resident freeholders travelled to vote, chiefly from adjacent counties and from London, where both sides had committees working to maximize the outvote; they split roughly 60:40 for the coalition. Pollbook evidence confirms the existence of a sharp urban-rural divide. Of the seven largest towns, Brighton, Chichester, Horsham, Lewes, Rye and Worthing all showed clear majorities for Cavendish, and only in Hastings, where government influence was strong, were supporters of the coalition in the majority. The presence of flourishing Dissenting congregations in Chichester and Lewes probably aided Cavendish (on the hustings, Curteis had bemoaned his lack of support from this quarter). In Brighton, Curteis’s cause cannot have been helped by unanswered allegations that he had approved an increase in the town’s contribution to the county rate. At Rye the patron, the Rev. George Lamb, an early mover in the effort to replace Webster, had pronounced Curteis to be ‘entirely disagreeable’ to the local inhabitants on account of his perceived hostility to their harbour interests, and complained that thanks to the coalition his efforts for Burrell had fallen on stony ground. Collectively, the urban vote, which comprised a quarter of the total, went to Cavendish by two to one.16 In the rural areas, the freeholders favoured Burrell and Curteis by the same margin, thanks to the influence of the landed elite. Among the clergy, the titled and those designated ‘esquire’ in the pollbook, 81 per cent voted for the coalesced candidates, bearing out Curteis’s portentous claim of a victory ‘comprehending almost all that is great and good in the county’. According to one historian, Burrell and Curteis owed about 750 votes directly to the influence of the magnates: apart from Egremont, Ashburnham, Sheffield and Chichester, their cause was assisted, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by Richmond, the 2nd earl of Abergavenny, the 1st Marquess Camden, the 3rd Viscount Gage, the 2nd Viscount Hampden, the 2nd Baron Selsey, Fuller and the divided Dorset interest. Where the influence of such powerful men was strong, there are instances of whole parishes voting for Burrell and Curteis; around Egremont’s Petworth seat there was scarcely a wayward vote. This level of loyalty was nearly matched in the western downland parishes dominated by the Richmond and Selsey interests, and in north-eastern parts of the county, where the influence of Ashburnham, Sheffield and Abergavenny predominated. Cavendish’s small band of landed supporters could not counter this level or depth of influence. Pockets of support around the Cavendish estate at Eastbourne and Webster’s at Battle did not extend beyond the immediate locality. Although the lateness of Cavendish’s declaration hampered his agent’s efforts, Norfolk’s influence aided his cause in Arundel and the Horsham district, where the veteran Whigs Robert Hurst* and Sir Timothy Shelley† also resided. Poyntz, Lord Robert Spencer† and Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh† influenced voters in the north-western corner of the county. In other places landlord influence is more difficult to demonstrate. For example, the parish of Buxted inclined strongly towards Cavendish, despite the residence of Liverpool’s brother. Elsewhere the value of a thorough canvass and a local agent to ensure the loyalty of voters was illustrated: in East Grinstead and Chailey, Sheffield complained that neglect had allowed hostile attorneys to pervert voters’ intentions.17

The widely held reservations about Curteis may explain why funds to defray the vast expense of the election were less forthcoming from the magnates than had been their pledges of support. Platitudes about returning candidates free of personal charge were quickly forgotten when the coalition agents presented a bill not far short of Cavendish’s expenditure of £26,218. Curteis was expected to match Egremont’s contribution of £9,000, to which Ashburnham added £2,500, with the remainder being raised by subscription. This rankled with Curteis, particularly as Burrell’s contribution did not exceed £4,000, and the matter was still in dispute 18 months after the election. The Lewes agent for Burrell and Curteis drew comfort from the reflecton that ‘on our side ... the expense has not entirely been thrown away as it shows that small freeholds do not yet govern the county’. Their opponents could only gloat at Curteis’s discomfiture when faced with the bills.18 The expense of the contest led to an immediate attempt to fix future elections at Lewes. Law was behind the requisition which secured a county meeting to discuss this, 11 May. Speakers stressed the inaccessibility of Chichester to eastern freeholders and lamented the advantage thus conferred on candidates able to pay for the conveyance of voters. Both Curteis and Webster supported the proposed move, along with the Lewes Members Sir John Shelley and Sir George Shiffner. A bill to accomplish this was introduced by Curteis, 6 June, but it quickly ran into opposition from powerful western interests. Burrell, who had earlier admitted the justice of the measure, presented a petition against it, 21 June, as did Hurst. At the second reading, 23 June 1820, Huskisson threw his weight against it, denying that there was a case for such an exceptional measure. He noted the growth of urban influence in the county and warned that the ‘active, bustling and unified minorities’ of Brighton would exert a disproportionate influence at a Lewes-based election. The bill was rejected by 35 to 28.19

Huskisson’s comment during the debate on the election bill that county meetings were ‘almost unknown’ in Sussex seemed to be borne out during the Queen Caroline affair in the autumn of 1820. Poyntz and Lord George Cavendish, who might have raised a demonstration in her favour, declined to do so, and Sheffield’s attempts to promote a meeting in the opposite interest met with an indifferent response, as did Ashburnham’s efforts to revive his local militia troop. In January 1821 the assembled magistrates of the eastern division were asked to sign a loyal declaration to the king. Seventeen did so, another 16 approved it in absentia, while two publicly dissented, an indication of the overwhelmingly Tory composition of the magistracy. (A correspondent of Egremont in 1831 scarcely exaggerated when he complained that ‘for 45 years Whigs have been universally excluded’ from the bench.)20 During the winter of 1821-2 meetings to discuss agricultural distress took place in several parts of the county and some unlikely political bedfellows were found. At a farmers’ meeting in Lewes, 3 Dec. 1821, Egremont joined the local radical Henry Blackman in attacking the resumption of cash payments, though he successfully resisted calls for a county meeting. William Cobbett† spoke at meetings in Lewes and Battle in early January 1822, and at the latter another curious misalliance occurred when, on concluding a bleak survey of the rural economy of Sussex, Curteis proposed the radical demagogue’s health. After travelling through the east of the county a local correspondent to The Times reported in September 1822:

Ease, affluence and plenty, which seven or eight years since so universally predominated among the Sussex yeomanry, have nearly disappeared, and penury, grumbling and discontent prevail in their stead. This alteration in their circumstances has greatly operated on their political opinions, and they now loudly declaim against the men and the measures which they formerly most strenuously and vehemently upheld.

Yet the farmers’ flirtation with radicalism proved to be short-lived, and Curteis’s parliamentary activity did not live up to his public rhetoric.21

Although it was widely assumed that Cavendish’s late entry to the fray in 1820 was executed with an eye to the next general election, by the autumn of 1825 John Smith, Member for Midhurst, expressed pessimism about his prospects, ‘the war whoop of the church having been raised ... with some effect’, and the following spring Lord Yarborough believed his chances were ‘doubtful’. The Tory Brighton Gazette predicted defeat for the Whigs, naming the Catholic question as ‘the rock on which they will split’, and in late May 1826 press rumour correctly stated that Cavendish would not stand a contest. Reports that Alexander Donovan of Framfield, lately defeated at Lewes, would come forward instead proved chimerical.22 In the event, Burrell and Curteis’s unopposed return was prevented by their old adversary Webster who, having stood unsuccessfully at Chichester, where the county election was again to be held, was on the spot to issue a hasty address. He expressed ‘surprise and indignation’ at Cavendish’s failure to come forward or publicly account for not doing so and offered the electors the chance to punish the sitting Members for the coalition of 1820. Burrell openly disavowed any renewal of this junction of interests, and Curteis hotly denied that Cavendish’s non-appearance was due to an ‘understanding’ reached with him. He emphasized his votes for economy and maintained that he had ‘neither asked nor received favour from administration’, conveniently forgetting his enlistment of Liverpool’s assistance in securing an army posting for his son. While his assiduity as a Member was generally acknowledged, some commentators criticized him for displaying an undue readiness to bow to popular clamour by supporting the agricultural interest. After the ruinous expense of the previous contest, the candidates agreed not to spend their own money in conveying voters, who were urged to form volunteer committees. The sitting Members expected little more than a token fight from Webster, who had spent much of the past six years abroad, evading his creditors, with Battle Abbey let. Nevertheless, after being nominated on the hustings by Chichester radicals, he carried out his threat to take the full sense of the county by keeping the poll open for 15 days. Burrell was never in any danger, but at the end of the third day Webster led Curteis by two votes. Curteis issued an address enjoining his eastern supporters to come forward, admitting that a ‘very serious’ contest had arisen. In London a committee offered their services, and Curteis built a commanding lead thereafter. He did so largely without the support of the clique that had backed him in 1820, as his relations with Ashburnham had deteriorated and Egremont was apparently lukewarm in his commitment. Curteis faced accusations that he had broken his own pledge by employing an agent, while his son Herbert virtually admitted that he had paid voters to travel to the poll. The Webster camp’s allegations of joint canvassing for Curteis and Burrell provoked the latter to denounce the linking of their names as an ‘unwarrantable liberty’. Attacks were reported during the election on Curteis’s supporters in Arundel and Brighton, and Curteis himself, who had lost none of his horror of the Chichester mob, wrote letters to ministers protesting at the incompetence of the local authorities. At the close of the poll, Burrell and a physically undamaged Curteis were declared elected.23

No pollbook has survived, but details from the local press show that of the 3,288 freeholders who polled, 64 per cent gave a vote to Burrell, 62 per cent to Curteis and 36 per cent to Webster. Webster secured 917 plumpers (80 per cent of his total), Curteis had 242 (12) and Burrell 65. Burrell and Curteis received 1,793 split votes (85 per cent of both their totals), Burrell and Webster, much to the former’s disappointment, shared only 258 (12 and 22 per cent), and a mere 13 split for Curteis and Webster. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the main areas of support for Webster were in the towns, and that votes from Brighton and Chichester accounted for his good early showing. The Brighton Gazette boasted that the importance of Brighton within the county electorate had never been greater. Figures for the six rapes of the county show that Webster narrowly outpolled Curteis in Chichester and also scored well in Lewes (which included Brighton) and Hastings, where his former residence was situated. In Bramber, where Norfolk’s influence was strong, the sharp fall in Webster’s vote compared with Cavendish’s in 1820 indicates that, contrary to newspaper reports, his interest was not exerted wholeheartedly in Webster’s favour. Burrell and Curteis polled most impressively in their respective areas of the county, with Burrell’s support topping 80 per cent in Arundel and Bramber and Curteis’s approaching 90 per cent in Pevensey.24

The fact that the majority of voters in 1826 had travelled to the poll at their own expense prompted renewed calls for future elections to be sited at Lewes; one paper reported that ‘the blood of East Sussex seems now to be up’. Petitions, rather than a county meeting, were the means adopted to further this aim, and 25 were presented from eastern parishes, against 17 from the west expressing hostility to change. Curteis introduced a bill, 5 Apr., but at the second reading, 9 May 1827, the formidable figure of Huskisson again stood in its way, and on advice Curteis withdrew it.25 Despite the county’s reputation for anti-Catholic bigotry, attempts to promote Brunswicker activity in 1828 were apparently unsuccessful and resistance to the Wellington ministry’s emancipation bill in 1829 was confined to local petitioning. The Dissenters of Brighton and Hastings petitioned the Commons both for and against emancipation.26 Burrell and Curteis continued to oppose concession and the latter told the Commons, 3 Mar., that 95 per cent of Sussex inhabitants were hostile. An important development at this time was the rise to prominence of Richmond, a leading Ultra, who eclipsed Egremont in county affairs. His subsequent conduct would do much to shape the course of Sussex politics, and this process was aided by the change of eastern Member. In the spring of 1829 Curteis suffered an apoplectic fit, and that summer John Villiers Shelley*, the son of the Lewes Member, offered his services ‘in the event of any future vacancy’, sending out circular letters to all the important freeholders. Curteis, who seems to have been determined that his son Herbert should eventually succeed him, gave the Shelleys the impression that he would ‘certainly stand again’, and asked for an assurance that he would not be opposed if he did so. This request was complied with, but the younger Shelley’s address continued to be published and he was reported to have embarked on a canvass. Shelley’s actions forced the hand of Herbert Curteis, who issued an address, 11 July, announcing his intention to stand ‘in case the vacancy so pointedly alluded to should unfortunately occur’. To his father he opined, ‘it is great folly of young Shelley to have created all this premature excitement in the county’, adding that he was ‘only acting from necessity’. He was ignorant of Shelley’s politics, but hoped that ‘they will be high Tory ... then I think I could beat him’. More liberally inclined than his father, Herbert Curteis was confident that his profession of support for moderate parliamentary reform would conciliate the townsmen, though if they backed him, he assured his father, ‘it will be with the distinct understanding that I am not a radical’. On advice, he delayed making an overt canvass, and confined his electioneering to ‘showing myself on all public occasions’ and making discreet personal calls on the county magnates. He realized that his politics might not be ‘sufficiently Tory’ to satisfy them, but calculated that their ‘slight assistance’ would secure his election. Meantime, his firm but restrained handling, as a local magistrate, of public disorder at Rye in May 1830 can only have raised him in the landowners’ estimation.27

At the dissolution in the summer of 1830 Shelley announced that he would not stand after all, blaming the widespread objections to his youth. Herbert Curteis’s address added a declaration of support for the agricultural interest to his reform pledge. However, the threat of an opposition to him persisted until the day of the election: Charles Cavendish, Webster, Norfolk’s son Lord Surrey* and his cousin Henry Howard, Member for New Shoreham, Donovan and even Lord John Russell* were variously expected to come forward. Of these, only Webster appears to have engaged in a canvass, according to Edward Curteis, who also reported to Egremont on the good prospects for his son at Chichester, Brighton and among the London out-voters. No relaxation of the canvass was permitted, on account of Norfolk’s refusal to give any pledge, and the overt hostility of Shelley, of Hurst at Horsham and of the radical irreconcilables in the towns. Burrell’s seat was thought to be secure, though one Whig newspaper complained of his ‘passive and inert’ conduct in Parliament. On the hustings, his proposer James Martin Lloyd* welcomed the return to the quiet inexpensive election of county Members. Curteis was nominated by Sir Charles Goring of Wiston and, somewhat surprisingly, by Thomas Read Kemp, Whig Member for Lewes, who hoped to see ‘a little more public independence from the son than the father has shown’, observing that ‘if returned he will be brought in under very different circumstances and freed from those trammels by which his father was bound’. Kemp’s extensive property holdings in Brighton meant that he almost embodied the ‘town’ interest, and he advised Curteis against devoting himself exclusively to agricultural concerns, though he also testified to the sincerity of his reform pledge. Curteis explained that he would not go as far as the radicals on universal suffrage and annual parliaments, but he professed his openness to persuasion on the ballot. Both candidates issued ringing denunciations of the lately deposed French king, but they refused to be drawn into giving pledges on the abolition of slavery. No third candidate appeared, and Burrell and Curteis were declared elected. With the conciliation of his father’s antagonists complete, Curteis thanked the Chichester radicals for not raising a ‘vexatious opposition’ against him, and noted that while he had been told that ‘between Tory and Radical, in between two stools, he would lose [the] seat’, he had ‘formed a different estimate and the result proved he was correct’.28

Whereas in January 1830 Huskisson had detected a mood of resignation among Sussex farmers, the picture had dramatically altered by November, when the ‘Swing’ riots spread across the Kent border into the Sussex Weald. There were several instances of farmers colluding with the labourers, to link their own grievances over taxes and tithes to the demands for higher wages and poor allowances. Later that month the movement reached the west of the county, where incendiarism and machine breaking were prevalent.29 Against this background, both Members voted to bring down Wellington’s government and Richmond agreed to serve in the new ministry formed by Lord Grey. Public meetings in favour of the government’s reform bill took place at Lewes, 11 Mar., and Brighton, 14 Mar., and the Brighton high constable’s dinner, 5 Apr. 1831, took on an unprecedentedly political character when Curteis used the occasion to attack local clergymen for their interference against the bill. This won him a warm reception at the county meeting on reform, 7 Apr., which was addressed by Lord George Cavendish, Webster, Kemp, Blunt and Donovan; Richmond’s brother Lord John George Lennox also spoke strongly for the bill. A radical amendment referring to the boroughmongers as ‘a base and sordid faction’ and implying a call to arms in the event of the bill’s defeat was decisively rejected. The only anti-reformer to speak was John Villiers Shelley, whose spirited performance was widely admired.30 During these proceedings Burrell, who had indicated his support for reform, lay on his deathbed, and the vultures circled over his seat. For some time Norfolk had eyed it for Surrey, while Richmond had anticipated that any vacancy would be filled by his brother. Surrey issued a hasty address, 8 Apr., pledging support for the reform bill, which was matched the next day by Lennox, who dubbed it ‘a measure of conservation’. The ‘warm’ canvass that ensued apparently gave more encouragement to Lennox, who no doubt benefited from his performance at the county meeting, which Surrey, a poor public speaker, had not attended. Surrey’s only prominent supporters were Webster and Cavendish, and Brighton was his urban stronghold; apart from this, the eastern division was reportedly for Lennox ‘to a man’. Herbert Curteis joined his father in offering active support to Lennox, though he hoped a ‘collision’ between the noble families of the west could be avoided. This sentiment was echoed in ministerial circles, where the possibility of two reformers facing each other caused some consternation. As a member of the cabinet, Richmond enjoyed a pre-eminence among the county magnates and his claims inevitably took precedence over those of Norfolk, a lifelong Whig. Grey himself may have taken some part in effecting a compromise, whereby Norfolk consented to Surrey’s withdrawal for the present, in return for the prospect of his son filling one of the additional county seats proposed by the reform bill. Surrey’s withdrawal notice, 12 Apr., betrayed his displeasure at this arrangement, and tears were reportedly shed when he informed his Brighton committee. Those who distrusted Lennox’s recent conversion to reform vainly sought another candidate to continue the contest, but despite encouragement from Webster, no one came forward.31

The defeat of the reform bill in April 1831 and the ensuing dissolution obviated the need for a by-election to fill the vacant western seat, which ironically would have taken place at Lewes. Recognizing the precariousness of his own interest, Curteis did not take his re-election for granted. He warned Richmond that, given his support for the government’s bill, ‘I shall not feel myself called upon to give way to any reformer whatever’, and he clearly expected the duke to reciprocate his support for Lennox, albeit ‘without anything like coalition, which must be avoided’; this was apparently done. Donovan, who had recently engaged Richmond in an earnest, occasionally obsequious correspondence, did not offer for the eastern seat, despite earlier indications that he would do so. There remained a threat, as Curteis reported, that Sir John Shelley might be ‘put forward, backed by a purse made up by anti-reformers in London, not belonging to Sussex’, but ‘if such a thing were attempted I would not answer for the personal safety of the worthy baronet’. In the event the anti-reformers opted, as they had at the county meeting, for a dignified retreat, allowing Curteis and Lennox to be returned unopposed while they inserted in the press a declaration against the government’s bill, which was signed by Camden, the 2nd earl of Sheffield, the 5th Earl De La Warr (coheir of the Dorset interest), the 4th Viscount Gage and Shiffner. Lennox arrived at the hustings in Chichester at the head of a procession half a mile long.32

Following the rejection of the reintroduced reform bill by the Lords a numerously signed requisition secured a county meeting, 4 Nov. 1831. Notwithstanding Richmond’s ‘fears of excitement’, a moderate address was adopted expressing confidence in the ministry, which was supported by the 3rd earl of Chichester, Goring and Donovan. However, the unanimity of the previous meeting was not repeated, as radical freeholders, led by Webster and George De Lacy Evans, Member for Rye, called for stronger wording and protested against the legislative role of the bishops. Talk of the formation of a political union for Sussex was condemned by Curteis, to hisses, as ‘extremely unpalatable’. The Tory George Robert Dawson* attempted to exploit these seeds of disunity with an inflammatory speech against the bill, but he had no connection with the county and the main body of anti-reformers were again absent (with ‘some reluctance’, in De La Warr’s case). Another of this group, Shiffner, interpreted the attendance of ‘about 300’ at the meeting as a vindication of his principles, though in reforming circles the event was hailed as a triumph.33

By the Reform Act of 1832 Sussex lost nine borough seats through the disfranchisement of Bramber, East Grinstead and Steyning, and the partial disfranchisement of Arundel, Horsham and Midhurst, while it gained two through the enfranchisement of Brighton, which removed many urban voters from the county. Sussex was divided into East and West, each returning two Members. Despite the greater size and population of the East, the traditional boundary was adopted, with a small alteration being made in the west to compensate for the incorporation of a detached portion of Hampshire.34 East Sussex had 3,437 registered electors in 1832, and West Sussex 2,365. Curteis and Cavendish were returned for the Eastern division in 1832 and sat until the former’s defeat in 1837 and the latter’s retirement in 1841. Lennox and Surrey were returned unopposed for West Sussex in 1832 and sat until their retirements in 1841. East Sussex later fluctuated in its political allegiance, returning two Conservatives between 1841 and 1857, while West Sussex was solidly Conservative from 1841.

Authors: Howard Spencer / Terry Jenkins


  • 1. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1823-4), 494; (1832-4), 1002; VCH Suss. ii. 273-325.
  • 2. W.D. Cooper, Parl. Hist. Suss. 1-4; J. Lowerson, Hist. Suss. 114-19; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 387-90; W. Suss. RO, Petworth mss 79, Liverpool to Egremont, 14 Oct., to Sheffield, 21 Oct. 1819; 76, Ashburnham to Egremont, 28 Feb.; E. Suss. RO, Ashburnham mss 3242, Egremont to Ashburnham, 1 Mar.; Cheshire and Chester Archives, Stanley mss DSA 32, Chichester to Sheffield, 3 Mar. 1820; Add. 51725, Egremont to Holland, 21 July 1831.
  • 3. The Times, 16 Feb. 1820. The following accounts draws on J.R. McQuiston, ‘Suss. Aristocrats and County Election of 1820’, EHR, lxxxviii (1973), 534-58.
  • 4. Ashburnham mss 3242, Egremont to Ashburnham, 16, 20 Feb., 1 Mar.; Petworth mss 76, Ashburnham to Egremont, 18, 20, 22 Feb.; 69, Sheffield to same, 20 Feb. 1820.
  • 5. Add. 38191, f. 127; 38458, f. 282; Petworth mss 76, Ashburnham to Egremont, 22, 26 Feb.; 69, Sheffield to same, 2 Mar.; Stanley mss, Ranier to Sheffield, 22 Feb. 1820.
  • 6. Ashburnham mss 3241, Egremont to Ashburnham, 24 Feb., Curteis to same, 24 Feb.; Petworth mss 76, Curteis to Egremont, 28 Feb.; Stanley mss, letters to Sheffield from Chichester, Ashburnham and Egremont, 3 Mar. 1820.
  • 7. Ashburnham mss 3242, Egremont to Ashburnham, 26-28 Feb., 1, 2 Mar.; Petworth mss 76, Ashburnham to Egremont, 28, 29 Feb., 2 Mar.; Add. 33112, f. 406; The Times, 28 Feb. 1820.
  • 8. Ashburnham mss 3241, Curteis to Ashburnham, 3, 4, 6 Mar.; 3242, Egremont to same, 28 Feb., 4 Mar.; Stanley mss, Egremont to Sheffield, 3 Mar., Chichester to same, 5 Mar.; Suss. Advertiser, 6 Mar. 1820.
  • 9. Account of Suss. Election 1820, pp. 50, 56-58. 70; The Times, 7 Mar.; Petworth mss 76, Ashburnham to Egremont, 5 Mar.; Chatsworth mss, Abercromby to Devonshire, 8 Mar. 1820.
  • 10. Ashburnham mss 3241, letters from Curteis to Ashburnham, n.d. [Mar.]; Petworth mss 76, Egremont’s memo. n.d. [Mar.], Arbuthnot to Huskisson, 8 Mar., Ashburnham to Egremont, 9, 11 Mar. and n.d., Curteis to same, 10 Mar., Poyntz to same, 21, 23 Mar.; Stanley mss, Ashburnham to Sheffield, 10 Mar., Sheffield to Sidmouth, 13 Mar. 1820; Suss. Election 1820, pp. 101, 102.
  • 11. Petworth mss 76, Ashburnham to Egremont, 7, 9 Mar.; Ashburnham mss 3241, Curteis to Ashburnham, 7 Mar.; 3243, same, 11 Mar.; Stanley mss, Ranier to Sheffield, 13 Mar.; Suss. Advertiser, 13 Mar. 1820; Suss. Election 1820, pp. 59, 67, 76, 77, 84-90, 158, 173.
  • 12. Sussex Pollbook (1820), app. 1-4; Suss. Election 1820, pp. 107-47; The Times, 21 Mar. 1820; Add. 33112, f. 414.
  • 13. Petworth mss 76, Curteis to Ashburnham, 14 Mar., reply, 15 Mar., Chichester to Egremont, 17 Mar.; 69, Sheffield to same, 17, 21 Mar.; Stanley mss, Ranier to Sheffield, 18, 21 Mar.; Ashburnham mss 3241, Curteis to Ashburnham, n.d. [Mar.]; 3247, same, 17 Mar.; 3252, same, 20 Mar.; 3238, Burrell to Ashburnham, 9 Apr. 1820; Add. 33112, f. 408.
  • 14. Devon RO, Sidmouth mss, Bloomfield to Sidmouth, 15 Mar.; Stanley mss, Curteis to Sheffield, 20 Mar.; Jnl. of Gideon Mantell ed. C. Curwen, 17.
  • 15. Suss. Election 1820, pp. 166-80; Suss. Advertiser, 27 Mar.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 17 Mar.; Petworth mss 76, Ashburnham to Egremont, 31 Mar. 1820; Add. 38742, f. 6.
  • 16. Suss. Pollbook (1820), passim; Ashburnham mss 3240, Lamb to Ashburnham, 8 Feb., 8, 10 Mar.; The Times, 17 Mar. 1820.
  • 17. Suss. Pollbook (1820), passim; McQuiston, 551-2; H.A. Wyndham, Fam. Hist. 324; Ashburnham mss 3241, Curteis to Ashburnham, 7 Mar.; 3238, Sheffield to same, 17 Mar.; Petworth mss 69, Sheffield to Egremont, 21 Mar.; 76, Curteis to same, 2 Apr. 1820; Arundel Castle mss C537; Add. 33112, f. 410.
  • 18. Petworth mss 69, Sheffield to Egremont, 6 Mar.; 76, Curteis to same, 29 Mar., 2 Apr., 11 Aug., W. Hick to same, 2 June; Ashburnham mss 3242, Egremont to Ashburnham, 22 Mar.; 3239, Curteis to same [Mar.]; 3238, Burrell to same, 9 Apr.; Bucks. RO, Chesham mss AR38/58, Suss. election notebook; Add. 43230, f. 245; 51571, Thanet to Lady Holland, 16 Apr. 1820.
  • 19. Suss. Election 1820, pp. 181-212; Suss. Advertiser, 17 Apr., 1, 15, 22 May, 26 June 1820.
  • 20. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 13 Dec.; Petworth mss 76, Ashburnham to Egremont, 23 Sept., Sheffield to same, 22, 30 Nov. 1820; 80, W. Seymour to same, 6 Feb. 1831; Suss. Advertiser, 24 Jan. 1821.
  • 21. The Times, 6, 31 Dec. 1821, 7 Jan., 23 Sept.; Suss. Advertiser, 7, 14 Jan. 1822; CJ, lxxvii. 16, 23, 27, 34, 199, 204, 207, 213, 230; T.L. Crosby, English Farmers and Politics of Protection, 16, 58, 59.
  • 22. Add. 33112, f. 212; Brougham mss, Smith to Brougham, 2 Sept. 1825; Add. 51833, Yarborough to Holland, 20 Mar.; Brighton Gazette, 6, 13 Apr., 25 May; Brighton Herald, 20, 27 May 1826.
  • 23. Brighton Gazette, 1-29 June, 6 July; Suss. Advertiser, 19, 26 June 1826; Chichester Election Placards [BL 1856. b. 13.], ff. 597-615; Add. 43230, f. 289.
  • 24. Brighton Gazette, 29 June; Suss. Advertiser, 10, 17 July 1826.
  • 25. Cooper, 4; CJ, lxxxii. 381, 389, 394, 427, 428, 433, 437, 440, 444, 445, 452.
  • 26. Add. 51599A, Lady Cowper to Holland, 31 Oct. 1828; Hants Telegraph, 23 Feb., 2 Mar., 6, 13 Apr. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 98, 105, 115, 133, 145, 182.
  • 27. Brighton Herald, 27 June 1829; Suss. Advertiser, 9 Aug. 1830; E. Suss. RO SAS/JC 504; AMS 5995, 1/61-67.
  • 28. Suss. Advertiser, 5-26 July, 2-14 Aug.; Brighton Gazette, 8 July; Petworth mss 80, E.J. Curteis to Egremont, 7, 15 July 1830; Procs. Chichester Election (1830), 195-210.
  • 29. Add. 38758, f. 95; E. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé, Captain Swing (1985), 71-87, 256.
  • 30. Brighton Gazette, 10, 17 Mar., 7, 14 Apr.; Brighton Herald, 12, 19 Mar., 9 Apr. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 309, 407, 416, 419; W. Suss. RO, Goodwood mss 1433, f. 206.
  • 31. Grey mss, Durham to Grey, 8 Apr.; Goodwood mss 1433, ff. 197, 199, 202, 207-10, 213-18; 1435, f. 169; 1436, f. 464; W. Suss. RO, Add. 168; Brighton Gazette, 14, 21 Apr.; Brighton Herald, 16 Apr. 1831.
  • 32. Goodwood mss 1433, ff. 217, 243, 244; Brighton Herald, 23, 30 Apr., 7-21 May; Suss. Advertiser, 25 Apr., 2 May; Brighton Gazette, 28 Apr., 5, 12 May 1831.
  • 33. The Times, 5, 6 Nov.; Brighton Herald, 5 Nov. 1831; Goodwood mss 1434, ff. 553, 559; Wellington mss WP1/215/63; E. Suss. RO SHR 828.
  • 34. PP (1831-2), xl. 345.