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:

about 5,000


14 Mar. 1820JOHN BENETT
16 June 1826JOHN BENETT
7 Aug. 1830JOHN BENETT
10 May 1831JOHN BENETT

Main Article

‘This Wiltshire is a horrible county’, wrote William Cobbett† after passing through Cricklade in 1821: ‘fine fields and pastures all around, and yet the cultivators of those fields so miserable’.1 It was nominally divided into northern and southern districts by a line running to the south of Devizes. These two parts were of proverbially different character: ‘chalk’, a largely arable area to the south-east, and ‘cheese’, a region of diary farming and increasingly depressed cloth manufactures to the north-west, which included the unfranchised towns of Bradford, Melksham, Trowbridge and Warminster. The county suffered periodically from agricultural distress, which occasionally spilt over into rural unrest, and numerous petitions were forthcoming for agricultural protection, lower duties on manufactured products and economies.2 A county of mostly rotten boroughs, its peers, who exercised their influence as borough patrons, had only a limited role in county elections. The leading Tory magnate was the 11th earl of Pembroke of Wilton, the lord lieutenant, who controlled the borough of Wilton but refrained from ‘all active exertion of influence’ during county contests.3 The 2nd earl (later 1st marquess) of Ailesbury of Tottenham Park and Savernake Lodge, who was colonel of the Wiltshire militia, held sway at Great Bedwyn and Marlborough. Other Tories included the 2nd marquess of Bath of Longleat, the 6th duke of Beaufort of Badminton, Gloucestershire, the 2nd earl of Malmesbury of Heron Court, Hampshire, and the 1st Earl Nelson of Trafalgar House, brother of the naval hero and prebendary of Canterbury. The Tory 2nd earl of Radnor of Longford Castle nominated the Members for both seats at Downton and for one at Salisbury, which was filled by his eldest son Lord Folkestone, an advanced Whig. On the more moderate wing of that party was the county’s principal Whig, the 3rd marquess of Lansdowne of Bowood, patron of Calne. Of the other Whigs, the 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke of Lydiard Park had the choice of one Member at Wootton Bassett, as did the 3rd Baron Calthorpe of Ampton, Suffolk, and Elvetham, Hampshire, at Hindon; and the 2nd earl of Carnarvon of Highclere Castle, Hampshire, the 3rd Baron Holland of Holland House, Kensington, and the 16th earl of Suffolk of Charlton Park had some influence at the enlarged freeholder borough of Cricklade. Despite the surfeit of constituencies in Wiltshire, these and other patrons mostly brought in non-resident or inactive Members, and, partly to redress this imbalance, some county business was managed by local country gentlemen who sat for one of the few open boroughs. This was the case, for instance, with two men who had formerly been considered for the county representation, namely Thomas Grimston Estcourt (afterwards Bucknall Estcourt) of New Park, Member for Devizes, and Robert ‘Bum’ Gordon of Kemble, Gloucestershire, Member for Cricklade.

In default of any strong aristocratic influence the county representation had long been in the hands of a small number of local gentry families, including the Goddards of Swindon, the Longs of Draycot, the Penruddockes of Compton Chamberlayne and the Pophams of Littlecote House. The Members were chosen by the Deptford and Beckhampton Clubs of leading gentlemen, from the south and north of the county respectively, and were then returned unopposed. Great play was made of the county’s spirit of independence against the intrusions of noble adventurers, most notably on the defeat of Henry Herbert, a kinsman of the Pembrokes, at a by-election in 1772. Despite the efforts of the radical Henry Hunt* of Chisenbury, the county experienced no further contests until 1818, though Paul Methuen† of Corsham House broke the monopoly of club rule in 1812, when he was elected in place of the Pittite Tory Henry Penruddocke Wyndham† of St. Edmund’s College, Salisbury. On the retirement of the inactive independent Richard Godolphin Long† of Rood Ashton at the general election of 1818, Methuen, who inclined towards the Whig opposition, was elected at the head of the poll and there was a violent contest for the second seat between the odious ministerialist William Pole Tylney Long Wellesley*, a nephew of the duke of Wellington and husband of the wealthy heiress to Draycot, and the Whig agriculturist John Benett of Pythouse. Benett came third, but, after Methuen had retired citing ill health in mid-1819, he was returned after an even more ferocious and expensive contest (during which 4,706 electors were polled) against one of his former supporters, John Dugdale Astley of Everley. Partly as a result of the recent animosities, virtuous private character, financial and political independence, party neutrality and a willingness to devote oneself to the interests of the freeholders became the candidates’ platitudes on the hustings, where national issues rarely provoked debate.4

Evidently reflecting a general sentiment, Sir Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead, author of the History of Modern Wiltshire, issued an address in August 1819 stating that

the county of Wiltshire, which for 46 successive years had enjoyed an uninterrupted state of peace and tranquillity, has been unfortunately convulsed by two electioneering contests, during which much riot, violence and confusion have been displayed; even the approach to the hustings, which should be open and free as air, to every party, has been (till lately) very scandalously molested. Every reflecting mind will naturally weigh the effects and results of these repeated contests; and at this period of temporary tranquillity it becomes every independent freeholder to heal existing differences, to conciliate party, and more especially to prevent, by every possible exertion, the return of any future opposition.5

Relative peace was maintained by the decision of the sheriff, John Long of Monkton Farleigh, not to call a county meeting on Peterloo in November 1819, after receiving a counter-requisition with about 1,000 signatures, including those of Pembroke, several Tory peers, and John Fisher, bishop of Salisbury. Only about 300, including the 11th duke of Somerset of Maiden Bradley House, had signed the original requisition for such a meeting, but the Whigs issued a constitutional declaration complaining of the sheriff’s refusal, which included the names of Sir Francis Burdett* of Ramsbury (and Foremark, Derbyshire) and John Cam Hobhouse*, the eldest son of Sir Benjamin Hobhouse† of Cottles House (and Westbury College, Gloucestershire).6

At the general election of 1820 Astley came forward against the sitting Members, and there was a rumour, ‘without much foundation probably’, of a fourth candidate.7 This may have been John Hungerford Penruddocke of Compton Chamberlayne (son of the former Member Charles Penruddocke), who later that year was spoken of as having ambitions for the county seat, though in fact he sat for Wilton from 1821.8 The prospect of another contest was greeted with dismay by Ambrose Goddard of The Lawn, Swindon, son and namesake of the former Member, who informed Benett, in an undated letter, that as sheriff he would have to remain neutral, but that he preferred Astley.9 Among the friends of Benett promising votes and influence were Major Fulwar Craven of Chilton House, John Gale Everett of Motcombe House, Dorset, Peter Harvey Lovell of Cole Park, Abraham Ludlow of Heywood House, Charles Lewis Phipps of Wans House, Alexander Baring, Member for Taunton, and George Purefoy Jervoise, former Member for Salisbury, who came in for Hampshire at this election. Benett’s agents also rallied to him, sending numerous letters containing tactical advice and intimations that Astley was conducting a successful canvass and that Benett should secure plumpers if possible, but otherwise be certain of gaining splits with him.10 Long Wellesley’s canvass was aided by Charles Arbuthnot*, the treasury secretary, but Thomas Grenville† reported that ‘Lansdowne says he has not the smallest chance, nor any money to assist him in the contest’.11 Indeed, on 7 Feb. Wadham Locke† of Rowdeford House, the unsuccessful Whig candidate at Devizes that year, urged Benett, who had already nearly bankrupted himself in the previous contests, ‘don’t spend more money let the event be what it may’, since ‘I have heard today that some of [Long] Wellesley’s friends will advise him to withdraw rather than stand another contest’. Holland offered Benett his interest, 9 Feb., ‘in consequence of your steady and independent opposition in Parliament’ against the Six Acts, and Suffolk also favoured his candidature.12 But many of the gentry silently approved of Astley, and there was, therefore, a social difference in the support received by the candidates. George Penruddocke (presumably John Hungerford’s brother the naval commander, of Limpley Stoke) commented to Benett on the 10th that

I do not think Mr. Astley’s interest at all declined among the upper class; the odium of his apostasy is rather softened by time. The lower class, if we may call them so, have certainly seen through the delusions imposed on them, they hate [Long] Wellesley and wish you and Astley success. Astley’s foible of drinking and seeking society beneath him and who look up to [him] has been of service to him, especially here, where the best are not respectable enough for a man of his fortune, if he had a dignity of mind equal to it. For yourself, I think you have gained in interest, but not with leaders. They are more virulent, indeed it increases with the display of your integrity and talents, but the influence of the mob is I hope not against you, for they frighten and deter a great many, and influence small shopkeepers who are freeholders and dare not vote against this stream. (Who can play at chess without pawns, for such you may consider the mob.) [Long] Wellesley can only have Long’s interest for the ministers would prefer Astley as their creature under the name and shadow of independence, which [Long] W[ellesley] wants, and they are afraid of his permanence. I hope it will produce a coldness between the Longs’ party and Astley. I anticipate a division in their disappointment. Then we may say divide et impera, for I think if the contest lies between you and Astley alone, the issue to say the least of it would be doubtful - he has money and leisure. No one can appreciate higher your determination to continue your duty in Parliament at the risk of your interests. You have the glory of neglecting your own for the public good.13

A published letter from the preacher and controversialist, the Rev. Rowland Hill of Surrey Chapel, Blackfriars Road, 12 Feb., described Benett as ‘a decided friend to religious liberty’, who was ‘by no means to be registered among the mock patriots of the day, a wanton oppositionist, without any just or weighty cause’. This was said to have done him good, though it created a stir in the local press, in which several addresses accused Benett of being an oppressor of the poor and others praised him as the champion of independence.14 Long Wellesley issued an address, 17 Feb., promising to continue his canvass until the nomination, but declining to burden his estates or injure his children’s prospects with any further expenses. Benett’s sister Etheldred reported to him on 22 Feb. that some of his friends hoped that Long Wellesley was thereby ‘letting himself down easy and that he would retreat from a poll’, but she had heard that he ‘is strongly supported by the government interest, which is silently at work for him in every direction, and that they are determined to bring in two ministerial Members if possible’. A severe contest was still expected, and Wadham Wyndham, son of the former county Member, who sat for Salisbury, chaired a meeting of freeholders, 3 Mar., when it was agreed to raise a subscription of £20,000 to secure Benett’s return. Long Wellesley finally withdrew, by an address dated 6 Mar. 1820, on the grounds that bringing his voters to the poll would have meant incurring ‘an indefinite expense’. His additional professed motive, to secure the county from ‘anarchy, confusion and the distraction of its peace’, was praised in an address from Folkestone on behalf of the grand jury the following day.15

At the nomination meeting at Devizes, 10 Mar. 1820, Benett was proposed by Phipps, and Astley by Richard Long, who had ‘positively refused’ Long Wellesley’s request to nominate him. Astley’s seconder, Thomas Tugwell of Woolley Green, denied that his candidate was merely the representative of local manufacturers or the western part of the county, and Benett spoke in defence of the interests not only of agriculture, but of commerce. At the unopposed election at Wilton, 14 Mar., when John Croker* noted that most of those attending had ‘cockades on both sides of their hats, but of different colours’, Benett, proposed by Ludlow, and Astley, nominated by Thomas Grove of Fern House, each made the customary remarks about independence and deprecated any further animosities. Benett, an active county Member, was particularly praised for hazarding another election, while Astley, who was given a baronetcy the following year, proved to be indolent in the House and was considered an unworthy representative.16 Lansdowne hoped that Pembroke would attend the county meeting on the accession of George IV, which Goddard had originally and ‘not very judiciously’ called for the day of the nomination meeting, ‘as I think such a proceeding ought to originate with the leading persons in the county, and not, as it has in this instance, with an election committee, however well intentioned’. Ailesbury, Lansdowne, Somerset and the county Members were present at the postponed meeting, 22 Mar., when Pembroke and Benett moved the address of condolence and congratulation.17 Benett presented and endorsed a Wiltshire clothiers’ petition complaining of distress signed by ‘upwards of 6,000 persons’, including 11 magistrates, 5 May, and others were presented to the Commons, 11, 18, 30 May, and to the Lords (by Lansdowne), 25 May 1820.18 Another indication of a return to tranquillity in county affairs was the generous spirit in which were conducted the county’s various social and charitable dinners, such as those of the Wiltshire Society, the Wiltshire Agricultural Society, the Devizes Bear Club, and the Wiltshire Auxiliary British and Foreign Bible Society.19 The Members usually attended these annual gatherings, whose proceedings were reported in the county’s two largely neutral newspapers, the (later Conservative) Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette and the (increasingly reformist) Salisbury and Winchester Journal.

The news of the acquittal of Queen Caroline was greeted with public rejoicing at several places in Wiltshire, and Lansdowne wrote to Holland from Bowood, 19 Nov. 1820, that

from what I see and hear of this part of this country you would have no difficulty in making the people (i.e. the great bulk of the middling classes) do what you please. You may perhaps have seen the authentic account of our triumphant progress through Calne after being met on the London road by a number of persons on horseback, music, etc.

With characteristic caution, however, Lansdowne admitted to Holland ten days later that he was reluctant to promote a county meeting, a requisition for which was soon in progress, and added that ‘you must not expect Wiltshire to set, but follow examples’.20 He did, however, put his signature to the requisition, which was also signed by Somerset, Carnarvon, Bolingbroke, Folkestone and Holland. Hobhouse sent in his name to add to it, though Methuen, who was also listed, tried to persuade him against ‘my coming down to preach radical doctrines at Devizes - there men think the reformers fools, without deference to time or place’. Goddard, who Bolingbroke recorded was ‘as much dissatisfied with ministers and all that has passed as any man can be’, agreed to call a county meeting, and George Tierney, the Whigs’ Commons leader, told Lord Grey on 13 Jan. 1821 that ‘Wiltshire is sure to succeed’.21 There was an ‘immense’ attendance in the Market Square in Devizes, 17 Jan., though Holland had excused himself by letter, much to the disgust of Lady Jersey. Methuen moved an address expressing the county’s loyalty to the king, but condemning ministers’ conduct towards the blameless queen, and, having been seconded by Somerset, it was agreed with only a handful of dissentients, including the diplomat Sir Alexander Malet of Wilbury House. Duncombe Pleydell Bouverie* of Clyffe Hall, a naval captain and one of Radnor’s younger sons, moved the petition, which specifically requested the restoration of her name to the liturgy. It was seconded by a young Tory, Sir Edward Poore of Rushall, who was intended to have moved the address, but had developed last minute doubts about this aspect of the question. Benett spoke strongly against ministers, Astley ducked the issue, and Thomas Calley* of Burderop and Gordon made what Hobhouse called ‘reforming, anti-Whig speeches’. The London barrister Henry Hall Joy of Hartham Hall made a long intervention in praise of the peers who had voted for the queen, and Lansdowne replied, but without committing himself to parliamentary reform. According to Hobhouse

Burdett and I tried not to speak, but after the sheriff had been thanked, we were called upon, one after the other, and were very well received. This I thought a singular sign in such a county, but in fact a very great change has taken place in public opinion.

Lansdowne reported to Holland that ‘our meeting passed off admirably ... Some of the country gentlemen least connected with party expressed the strongest opinion for a change of ministers. In short we are very popular’.22 The petitions were presented to the Commons, 24 Jan., and the Lords, 25 Feb., by Benett and Lansdowne respectively, who both stressed that they represented the true sense of the county.23 However, Pembroke, having sounded Ailesbury and Bath, forwarded to Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary, a counter-declaration prepared by a group of gentlemen residing near Wilton, who ‘have I understand, as others have elsewhere in the county, expressed a strong wish that something of the kind should be adopted’.24 In April Methuen published an address to him, signed by Astley and about 80 Tories, assuring him of their conviction that he had not acted with political partiality when refusing to make Charles Fyshe Palmer, Member for Reading, a magistrate in Wiltshire, a case which had been discussed in the Commons, 8 Feb. 1821.25

Benett brought up further petitions from the manufacturers and landowners of Wiltshire complaining of distress, 6, 15 Mar. 1821.26 There were outbreaks of unrest among the weavers of Bradford and Chippenham in January 1822.27 Lansdowne wrote to Somerset, 12 Feb., that ‘I shall be glad to hear of a Wiltshire meeting, though I do not wish to take an active part in promoting it ... If, however, you can undertake to attend, I should have no hesitation in setting my name with yours to any requisition you might draw up or approve’; nothing came of it.28 A petition for relief from distress from the occupiers of land in the county was presented by Benett, 3 Apr., and another from the woollen manufacturers of Wiltshire and Somerset against the warehousing bill was presented by Astley, 21 May.29 Petitions from the archdeacons and clergy of Sarum and Wiltshire were presented to the Lords against the Catholic peers bill, 3 June, and many other anti-Catholic petitions were forthcoming from the clergy during this period.30 In July 1822 Benett was ordered to pay £140 to William Boord, a Bath solicitor, in settlement of a debt arising from the expenses of the 1819 contest.31 Early in 1823 it was stated that ‘two thirds of the magistrates of the county are desirous of a county meeting to petition the legislature on the prevailing distress in the country: but that not one of them is willing to head a requisition to the sheriff to convene such a meeting’.32 Another woollen manufacturers’ petition against the warehousing bill was presented by Benett, 21 Apr. 1823, and one for the repeal of the duty on foreign wool was brought up by Astley, 1 Mar. 1824.33 Following the report of a committee chaired by Bucknall Estcourt into the treasurer’s accounts, the magistrates decided in January 1825 to petition the Commons for a reduction in the level of county rates, and this was presented by Benett, 22 Mar. 1825; another for an increase of coroners’ allowances was brought up by Astley, 17 Apr. 1826.34 It was at one point thought that Long Wellesley might re-enter, but, during speculation in September 1825 about a possible dissolution, the Devizes Gazette commented that the sitting Members ‘we presume, will walk over the course’. At the general election of 1826 they duly offered and the same paper noted that their conduct ‘meets the cordial approbation of their constituents, and it is not likely that any competitor will appear to challenge their re-election’. On the hustings at Wilton, 16 June, Benett, proposed by Thomas Henry Hele Phipps of Leighton House, and Astley, nominated by Colonel Charles Ashe A’Court*, only differed over the desirability of parliamentary reform; having been returned unopposed, they attended a joint dinner in Salisbury.35

A magistrates’ petition for alteration of the game laws was presented to the House, 4 May 1827, by Bucknall Estcourt, now Member for Oxford University. Among the many petitions against the Test Acts prepared by individual congregations during that year and the next, there was one from the associated ministers and pastors of the Independent churches of Wiltshire and East Somerset, which was brought up by Benett, 31 May 1827.36 Pembroke, who two years previously had written that ‘I have for some few years been under the necessity of declining all invitations to great public dinners’, died in October.37 In his place, Lansdowne, who served as home secretary under Canning and Lord Goderich, was appointed lord lieutenant, though he told the Irish poet Tom Moore of Sloperton Cottage that ‘it is an addition of trouble, and I think I have accepted it, as I did the other office, more to please other people’s opinions and wishes than my own’.38 In December Ailesbury resigned as colonel of the militia and was replaced by Suffolk.39 In late 1827 a county meeting was in contemplation to consider the establishment of a Wiltshire Friendly Society, and, after a successful preliminary meeting had been held in Devizes in January 1828, attended by Lansdowne and the Members, a further meeting to draw up the rules of the new society was held in April.40 A Wiltshire county petition against alteration of the laws relating to the wool trade was presented by Astley, 5 May 1828.41

In October 1828 it was reported that a Brunswick Club would be formed in Wiltshire, but a local paper commented that ‘however strong the feelings of some of our leading gentlemen may be against granting further concessions to the Catholics, we believe that they would hesitate long before they agitated the county on the subject’.42 Nevertheless, the Tory gentry were outraged by the government’s volte face on the issue of Catholic emancipation in early 1829: for instance, Edward Hinxman of Little Durnford House, a leading ‘Protestant’, complained of it in a public letter to Peel, the home secretary, and Thomas Burgess, bishop of Salisbury, upbraided Wellington, the prime minister.43 A petition was soon got up, and Bucknall Estcourt’s son Thomas Henry Sutton, whose efforts were rewarded by Ailesbury with a seat at Marlborough in March, and Richard Long’s elder son Walter Long† of Chalcot House, were active in promoting it and the county’s anti-Catholic declaration. Long ruled out the idea of a county meeting, arguing that ‘I feel certain we should make no cheer even in numbers amongst the gentry of the county. The neutrals would decidedly not attend and many of our own friends would, I am inclined to think, stay at home’.44 They received much advice and support, including some from Bucknall Estcourt’s father and Sidmouth, who was a relation and recorder of Devizes.45 The signatories of the declaration included Ailesbury, Astley, Calley, John Hungerford Penruddocke and Wyndham, as well as Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Baker of Salisbury, Member for Wilton, the Bank director John Pearce, Member for Devizes, the boroughmonger Joseph Pitt of Eastcourt House, Member for Cricklade, Alexander Powell of Hurdcott House, Member for Downton, and even Methuen, ‘the emperor Paul of Corsham’, whom Long called ‘more decidedly with us than even our southern friends’.46 Anti-Catholic petitions from the archdeacon and clergy of Wiltshire were presented to both Houses, 12 Feb. After the numerous sheets of signatures from the freeholders had been collated by Bucknall Estcourt senior and Astley, they were presented to the Lords, 6 Mar., and to the Commons (by Astley), 9 Mar., when Benett and Baring denied that it reflected the real sentiments of the county. The Wiltshire anti-Catholic declaration was presented to the king by Ailesbury in early April, but a counter-declaration was prepared and signed by Lansdowne, Somerset, Bath and Benett.47 A pro-Catholic petition from the freeholders was presented to the Lords by Lansdowne, 8 Apr. 1829, after which Long complained that ‘it was just like the Lansdowne and Benett crew to attack us in that sly way’, but he accepted the lord lieutenant’s explanation that he had not uttered the derogatory remarks attributed to him.48

In January 1830 the magistrates of Wiltshire agreed to get up a petition complaining of agricultural distress, and Lansdowne, who ‘recommended them to abstain carefully from pointing out remedies’, noted that ‘the feeling of irritation and distress are getting evidently very general’. Astley brought up and endorsed the petition from over 3,000 inhabitants of the county to the Commons, 19 Feb., when Benett gave the distance that many freeholders would have to travel as the reason why no county meeting had been called; Lansdowne presented it to the Lords, 22 Feb. Petitions from the proprietors and occupiers of land for extending the poor laws to Ireland were presented to the Commons and the Lords by Benett and Carnarvon, 29 Mar.49 Amicable relations continued between the Members and their supporters, as evinced at the Wiltshire Society dinner at the Albion tavern in London, 19 May, and the agricultural dinner in Devizes, 21 July. At the general election that summer, the Devizes Gazette opined that Wiltshire ‘we have no doubt, will remain in the peaceable possession’ of Astley and Benett, despite some assertions that ill health would force the latter to resign. The ‘utmost order prevailed’ on the hustings, 7 Aug., when Benett (nominated by Charles Lewis Phipps) and Astley (by Goddard) both spoke in favour of economies. Benett, who also supported the combined interests of agriculture and commerce, religious liberty and the abolition of slavery, recommended the forwarding of petitions because ‘it has often been said to me, "your constituents seem to differ from you, because they send you no petitions"’. Lansdowne, Ailesbury, Suffolk and the re-elected Members signed the requisition for a county meeting on 17 Aug. 1830, when Lansdowne and Benett proposed the loyal address to the new king.50

On 12 Nov. 1830 Benett boasted in the House that Wiltshire had not seen any rural unrest, but Cobbett rightly predicted in his Weekly Political Register, 20 Nov., that it might soon spread there, and the first incidents of threatening letters and arson began at about that time. As Benett later informed the Commons (on 8 Feb. 1831), it was known ‘that my house would be pulled down, because it was thought I would be the most likely person to oppose the rioters; so generally was this reported, that my family had warnings to quit the house’. He took leave from the Commons (as did Astley), 23 Nov., and was involved in dealing with the major disturbances on his estate, which marked the culmination of the ‘Swing’ riots in Wiltshire.51 As he wrote to Lansdowne, 25 Nov., from Pythouse:

I arrived here at 4 o’clock this morning and was called out of bed at nine by the information that a large mob of labourers were assembled in my parish to break machines and that mine would also be destroyed. I could not get a brother magistrate or collect ten men to support me. Even my own tenants of every description were in a state of extreme alarm. I got on my horse, and with my steward and a tenant went in quest of these deluded people ... I addressed them and remonstrated strongly on their conduct, telling them that I should not yield to demands made while they were in a state of riot ... The mob I suppose being 500, I told them I should not use force of any kind, but I sat on my horse to observe them, which they did not like and attacked me with sticks and stones. One of the latter struck me on the head and has disabled me for the present.

He retreated inside, and was rescued later that day by the Hindon troop of yeomanry cavalry, who dispersed the mob by force, during which so-called ‘battle’ one of the rioters was killed.52 Lansdowne, who became lord president in the Grey ministry that month, informed the publisher John Murray, 30 Nov., that

my time is incessantly engaged with the state of Wiltshire, and a continual correspondence with that heterogeneous body, a county magistracy - all quite abroad and not knowing how to conduct themselves in such a crisis. The people about me have been quiet enough, but there really has been la peur aux quatre coins.53

Local landowners and magistrates initially refused to raise wages and the rioters were prosecuted at a special commission, after which one man was executed and 152 were transported. But once peace was re-established, wages were raised, and Methuen told a meeting at Melksham, 6 Dec. 1830, that ‘he hoped there was no landlord so mean, so base, so wicked, as to wish to retain the labourers in their present degraded condition’.54 In the Commons, Hunt, now Member for Preston, denied Benett’s widely circulated allegation that he had actively incited the riots, and, laying the blame on the desperate circumstances of distress in Wiltshire and elsewhere, he called for clemency towards the convicts, condemned the military suppression of the disturbances and demanded inquiry into the legal proceedings and the treatment of prisoners in Fisherton gaol in Salisbury. Benett, who made a lengthy speech in defence of his own conduct, was widely supported in the debate, and Hunt’s motion for a general amnesty was lost by 262-2. Cobbett denied that he was responsible for the troubles in a published letter to ‘Wiltshire Benett’.55

In November 1830, partly to try to calm the unrest, the indefatigable reformer John Thomas Mayne of Teffont House prepared a petition for parliamentary reform and reduced expenditure, and circulated it widely through the county.56 According to his ‘diary of events’, the 3rd earl of Radnor (as Folkestone now was) prepared a requisition for a county meeting on reform, 17 Dec., with Methuen, who was appointed sheriff early the following year. It gained many signatures, including those of Suffolk and his only son Lord Andover†, Burdett, and several gentlemen, but others refused, among whom were Somerset, Carnarvon (who became an anti-reformer), and Benett, perhaps wary of Radnor’s radicalism.57 On 28 Dec. 1830 Radnor wrote to Holland, the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, that

I have been mainly instrumental in circulating the requisition ... and have hitherto not written to you or Lord Lansdowne on the subject ... as the first object of it is to assist your government in carrying your measure I have thought that it would be better that your names should not be attached to it, but finding that many persons, not unfriendly to the proceeding, think that you would be rather left without such aid (which I apprehend is not the case) I now trouble you on the subject, as if you sign it, I shall have a conclusive answer to give to such objectors.58

He was apparently rebuffed by both Holland and Lansdowne, but Methuen duly called the meeting.59 Benett presented Mayne’s petition, signed by 14,000 inhabitants of the county, 10 Feb. 1831, when he said ‘that a reform of some kind may take place is the unanimous wish of men of all parties in the county’, a sentiment echoed by Hobhouse on the 14th.60 At Devizes, 25 Feb., Radnor moved resolutions in favour of reform, which he kept moderate in tone in order to encourage a wide range of support, and they were seconded by Andover, and supported by Benett and Suffolk. Astley claimed that he had always been a reformer, but was taken to task by Mayne, who doubted the sincerity of his professions and tried, unsuccessfully, to move an amendment for greater economies and more extensive reform. The meeting over, Methuen cast aside the neutrality of his office and spoke in favour of reform.61 The petitions were presented on 28 Feb., to the Lords by Lansdowne and to the Commons by Benett, who brought up many reform petitions from places in Wiltshire, 18, 19 Mar.62 Both Members voted for the second reading of the reform bill, 22 Mar., and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831, which precipitated a dissolution.

Contemplating the passage of the bill, Methuen had already been sufficiently encouraged by the depth of support expressed privately for him to consider standing again for the county as a reformer. On 6 Feb. 1831 he wrote to Radnor:

I have in short, not the presumption to offer myself, but I think I cannot be blamed for taking advantage of circumstances should they turn up in favour of my pretensions. I am at the same time resolved not to spend a shilling and I must try popularity versus purse should a Dives oppose me. I feel and believe at this moment the course is open to me. What may happen in another year who may say?

He added that he had

not the slightest objection to being started against Astley, and the more so as I wish to give [sic] the county at large that there never was any understanding between us or any support for me previously to his having been the declared candidate for the county [in 1819].63

Yet, on account of his shrievalty, he was obliged to bide his time at the general election of 1831. Nothing came of rumours that Astley might be challenged by a genuine reformer, such as the pioneer photographer William Henry Fox Talbot† of Lacock Abbey, who was defeated at Chippenham, or the geologist George Julius Poulett Scrope of Castle Combe, who was unsuccessful at Chippenham and Malmesbury. Nor did an anti-reformer emerge, though Thomas Henry Sutton Bucknall Estcourt and Edward Henry A’Court, Member for Heytesbury, were supposed to have started canvasses.64 Benett was nominated by Grove, who said that ‘he had ever been in his place in the House of Commons, and had ever been found fighting the battles of the people’, and seconded by Walter Long, who had declined to start for the county or for Westbury. Astley, whose address included a frank confession of his conversion to the cause of reform, was proposed by Ambrose Awdry of Seend and seconded by Powell. Both candidates spoke in favour of reform, and, prompted by Mayne, for economies, and against slavery and monopolies. Having declared them elected unopposed, Methuen congratulated the county on having chosen Members who had ‘so unequivocally pledged themselves’ to support ministers.65 The cause of reform was broadly popular in Wiltshire, though there was an attempt to get up an anti-reform petition, and a hostile declaration, signed by over 100 Tories, including Ailesbury, Bath and Carnarvon, was published in August.66 In the House there were lengthy debates on what were seen as the palpably unjust cases of the disfranchisement of Downton, 21 July, and the decision (later reversed) partially to disfranchise Chippenham, 27 July. On 6 Aug. Thomas Grimston Bucknall Estcourt and Benett suggested that the representation of the West Country clothing interest should be increased by the enfranchisement of Bradford and Trowbridge, whose inhabitants addressed memorials to ministers in favour of this.67 The division of the county was agreed without debate or a division, 12 Aug., and it was said of the Members, who voted steadily in favour of the reintroduced reform bill, that they ‘do not intend to leave town for a single day until the reform bill shall have passed’. They attended the first anniversary meeting of the Wiltshire Anti-Slavery Society, 16 Sept. 1831.68

The reform bill went to the Lords that month and a requisition for a Wiltshire meeting was prepared by Poulett Scrope, who wrote that ‘a well-attended and enthusiastic county meeting at this moment will go far towards convincing the peers of the hopelessness of any opposition to the bill, and the policy of passing it with as little noise as possible’. The list of 120 names, which included Astley, Benett, Hobhouse and Burdett, was headed by Suffolk and Radnor, although they had expressed doubts about its expediency.69 The meeting followed immediately after the town meeting in Devizes, 30 Sept. A petition to the Lords was unanimously agreed, after pro-reform speeches from Andover, Benett, Poulett Scrope, Astley, Mayne, Locke, Radnor, Malet, who was the defeated reform candidate at Marlborough in 1830 and 1832, and William Bird Brodie† of The Close, Salisbury, the printer of the Salisbury Journal. The proceedings were brought to a close by Craven, whose ‘strong partiality to whiskers’ and ludicrous facial expressions excited much laughter. Methuen, who had recently unsuccessfully applied to ministers for a peerage on the grounds of his expenditure at previous elections and his prominent role in county affairs, also stated his approval of the current reforming spirit.70 The petition was presented and endorsed by Lansdowne, 4 Oct.71 The bill’s defeat by the Lords spurred the requisitionists to call for another meeting, which took place at Devizes on 28 Oct., when, in agreeing an address to the king, the same overwhelming unanimity in its favour was apparent. Speeches were made by Suffolk, Radnor, Benett, Astley, Poulett Scrope and others, including Montague Gore† of Tilehurst Lodge, Berkshire, and the historian Lieutenant-Colonel William Francis Patrick Napier of Battle House, and Methuen’s contribution again ably summarized the prevailing mood of firm and calm support for ministers. Lansdowne, who had absented himself because the purpose of the meeting was to congratulate the government, was embarrassed to be invited to attend a dinner in his honour at Devizes, on 16 Nov., as he would ‘be the only one of the ministers thus brought en evidence during the recess’. Moore advised him ‘at all events, not to be too short with them - so he but said a good deal he need not tell them anything’. He evidently brought this off in his speech, in which he praised the bill and counselled patience, and ‘there was not a dissenting voice as to its good tone and good taste’.72 Yet, two days later he informed Grey of the state of reform feeling in Wiltshire:

The gentry are equally divided: the half that are for reform very well disposed to the government, but many of these would rather see the bill modified; the middle classes in the proportion of four or five to one for the bill as it was; the lower orders nearly unanimous for any change, with a vague hope that it must better their condition.73

However, the county was largely quiet during the passage of the revised reform bill.

Although seven of Wiltshire’s rotten boroughs, including Old Sarum, were abolished, and a further four were deprived of one of their seats, the county remained overrepresented. The Northern division (which had Devizes as its principal town, and additional polling places at Malmesbury, Melksham and Swindon) returned two county Members, and contained the boroughs of Calne (one Member), Chippenham, Devizes, Malmesbury (one Member), Marlborough and Cricklade, which retained its identity as a separate electoral district. The two Members for the less populous Southern division (which had Salisbury as its capital, and additional polling places at East Everley and Warminster), were joined by those from Salisbury and the single Member constituencies of Westbury and Wilton.74 At the general election of 1832 an unpopular Astley and a triumphant Methuen were returned for Wiltshire North as Liberals, after a contest with the radical John Edridge of Pockeridge House. Benett, who sat as a Liberal, and later a Protectionist, until within a few months of his death in 1852, was elected unopposed for Wiltshire South with the Conservative Sidney Herbert of Wilton, the half-brother of the 12th earl of Pembroke, who represented the county until he was created Lord Herbert of Lea shortly before his death in 1861.75 Although the reformers gained several borough seats, their ascendancy did not last, and the county representation soon became solidly Conservative. Walter Long, who was defeated for Hampshire North that year, came in for Wiltshire North in 1835, and was joined by Burdett in 1837, and, after his death in 1844, by another Conservative, Thomas Henry Sutton Sotheron (as Bucknall Estcourt junior was then called).

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, i. 15.
  • 2. VCH Wilts. iv. 4-5, 169-73, 176-82; R. Whitlock, Wilts. 9-10.
  • 3. Wilts. RO, Pembroke mss 2057/F4/22, pp. 10, 98, 155.
  • 4. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), v. 94, 100; HP Commons, 1754-90, i. 406-8; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 410-13; VCH Wilts. v. 195, 196, 200, 204-8, 229-230; F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties, 121, 277, 278, 336, 337; R. Moody, Mr. Benett of Wiltshire, 53-118.
  • 5. Salisbury Jnl. 16 Aug. 1819.
  • 6. Devizes Gazette, 4, 11 Nov., 9 Dec. 1819; The Times, 20 Jan. 1821.
  • 7. The Times, 7 Feb.; Devizes Gazette, 17 Feb. 1820.
  • 8. Wilts. RO, Ailesbury mss 9/35/100, Methuen to Ailesbury [1820].
  • 9. Wilts. RO, Benett mss 413/485.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Glos. RO, Sotheron Estcourt mss D1571 F209, Arbuthnot to Estcourt, 3 Feb. 1820; HMC Fortescue, x. 454.
  • 12. Benett mss 485; Add. 51830, Benett to Holland, 13 Feb., Suffolk to same, 9 Mar. 1820.
  • 13. Benett mss 485.
  • 14. Ibid. Wansey to Benett, 28 Feb.; Devizes Gazette, 17, 24 Feb., 2, 9 Mar. 1820.
  • 15. Benett mss 485; Devizes Gazette, 2, 9 Mar. 1820.
  • 16. Benett mss 485, Etheldred Benett to Benett, 22 Feb.; Devizes Gazette, 16, 23, 30 Mar., 27 Apr.; Salisbury Jnl. 13, 20 Mar. 1820; Croker Pprs. i. 168; Moody, 119-26.
  • 17. Hants RO, Malmesbury mss 9M73/401, Lansdowne to FitzHarris, 10 Mar.; Devizes Gazette, 23 Mar. 1820.
  • 18. CJ, lxxv. 151, 177, 224, 252; LJ, liii. 83.
  • 19. Devizes Gazette, 18 May, 17 Aug.; Salisbury Jnl. 24 July 1820.
  • 20. Devizes Gazette, 16, 23 Nov., 14 Dec. 1820; Add. 51686.
  • 21. Devizes Gazette, 11 Jan.; Add. 56541, f. 131; 51830, Bolingbroke to Holland, 3 Jan.; 51686, Lansdowne to same, 11 Jan.; 51688, to same, 7 Jan. 1821; Grey mss.
  • 22. Devizes Gazette, 18, 25 Jan.; The Times, 19, 20 Jan.; Salisbury Jnl. 22 Jan.; Add. 51687, Lansdowne to Holland, 18 Jan.; 51831, Gordon to same [Jan.]; 51729, Lady Jersey to same [Jan.] 1821; 56541, f. 133.
  • 23. CJ, lxxvi. 5; LJ, liv. 13.
  • 24. Pembroke mss F4/23, pp. 2, 3, 12.
  • 25. Devizes Gazette, 19 Apr. 1821.
  • 26. CJ, lxxvi. 143, 144, 169; The Times, 7, 16 Mar. 1821.
  • 27. The Times, 25 Jan. 1822.
  • 28. Two Brothers, 284.
  • 29. CJ, lxxvii. 175, 285; The Times, 22 May 1822.
  • 30. LJ, lv. 216.
  • 31. Devizes Gazette, 25 July, 8 Aug. 1822.
  • 32. Ibid. 30 Jan. 1823.
  • 33. CJ, lxxviii. 231; lxxix. 110; The Times, 22 Apr. 1823, 2 Mar. 1824.
  • 34. Sotheron Estcourt mss X42-49; CJ, lxxx. 243; lxxxi. 249; Devizes Gazette, 20 Jan.; The Times, 23 Mar. 1825, 18 Apr. 1826.
  • 35. Moody, 147-8, 153, 162; Devizes Gazette, 22 Sept. 1825, 1, 8, 22 June; Salisbury Jnl. 12, 19 June 1826.
  • 36. CJ, lxxxii. 433, 510; The Times, 5 May, 1 June 1827.
  • 37. Pembroke mss F4/24, p. 93.
  • 38. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 318, 319; Moore Mems. v. 230.
  • 39. Devizes Gazette, 20, 27 Dec. 1827.
  • 40. Ibid. 18 Oct., 27 Dec. 1827, 14 Jan., 17 Apr. 1828; Sotheron Estcourt mss X115; Moody, 171, 172, 175.
  • 41. CJ, lxxxiii. 313.
  • 42. Devizes Gazette, 30 Oct. 1828.
  • 43. Salisbury Jnl. 2 Feb., 16 Mar. 1829; DNB sub Thomas Burgess.
  • 44. Sotheron Estcourt mss F438; X114, Long to T.H.S. Bucknall Estcourt, 26 Jan., 7, 8, Sat. [?28] Feb., 3 Mar. 1829.
  • 45. Ibid. X114, T.G. to T.H.S. Bucknall Estcourt, 1, 6, 8, Mon. [?9], 26 Feb., 2 Mar., Sidmouth to same, 5, 10 Feb., Penruddocke to same [Feb.], Pitt to same, 6 Feb. 1829.
  • 46. Ibid. X114, Long to T.H.S. Bucknall Estcourt, Wed. [?11 Feb.], [?2 Mar.] 1829.
  • 47. Ibid. X114, T.G. to T.H.S. Bucknall Estcourt, 3 Mar.; Devizes Gazette, 12, 26 Mar., 9 Apr.; Salisbury Jnl. 13 Apr. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 24, 115; LJ, lxi. 28, 127; Peniston Letters ed. M. Cowan (Wilts. Recs. Soc. l), 990, 991.
  • 48. LJ, lxi. 371; Sotheron Estcourt mss X114, Long to T.H.S. Bucknall Estcourt, 10, 13 Apr. 1829.
  • 49. Lansdowne mss, Lansdowne to Rice, 14 Jan.; Devizes Gazette, 14 Jan. 1830; CJ, lxxxv. 83, 236; LJ, lxii. 33, 170; Letter to Agriculturists of England (1830), 19-22.
  • 50. Devizes Gazette, 24 May, 1, 8, 22, 29 July, 12, 19 Aug.; Salisbury Jnl. 5, 26 July, 9, 23 Aug. 1830.
  • 51. Devizes Gazette, 25 Nov., 2 Dec. 1830; E.J. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé, Captain Swing (1985), 94-99; J. Chambers, Wilts. Machine Breakers, i. 19-96.
  • 52. Lansdowne mss; Chambers, i. 65-73, 260-3, 309-12; H. Graham, Annals of Yeomanry Cav. of Wilts. 70-96; M. Dalton, ‘Pyt House Riot’, Hatcher Review, iii (1990), 502-20; Moody, 185-201.
  • 53. Lansdowne mss.
  • 54. Ibid. A’Court to Lansdowne, 21 Nov.; Sotheron Estcourt mss X63, Benett to Bucknall Estcourt [Nov.], 13 Dec.; F665, latter to Sidmouth, 12 Dec.; Devizes Gazette, 9, 16, 23 Dec. 1830, 6, 13 Jan. 1831; Hobsbawm and Rudé, app. ii.
  • 55. Pol. Reg. 12 Feb. 1831.
  • 56. Salisbury Jnl. 29 Nov., 20, 27 Dec. 1830.
  • 57. Wilts. RO, Radnor mss 490/1376.
  • 58. Add. 51566.
  • 59. Radnor mss 1381, Methuen to Radnor, 6 Feb. 1831.
  • 60. CJ, lxxxvi. 230.
  • 61. Radnor mss 1376; Salisbury Jnl. 28 Feb.; Devizes Gazette, 3 Mar. 1831.
  • 62. LJ, lxiii. 262; CJ, lxxxvi. 324, 402, 406.
  • 63. Radnor mss 1381.
  • 64. Ibid. 1375, D. Pleydell Bouverie to Radnor, 26 Apr.; 1381, Methuen to same [n.d.]; Add. 51836, Methuen to Holland, 6 Mar.; Fox Talbot Mus. (Lacock), Fox Talbot mss, unknown to Fox Talbot, 24 Mar. [1831]; H.A. Wyndham, A Fam. Hist. 1688-1837, p. 353.
  • 65. Devizes Gazette, 14, 28 Apr., 12 May; Salisbury Jnl. 2, 16 May; The Times, 12 May 1831.
  • 66. Devizes Gazette, 30 June, 11 Aug.; The Times, 16 Aug.; Pembroke mss F4/50, Lady Clanwilliam to Herbert, 21 Apr. 1831.
  • 67. PP (1831), xvi. 9-11, 77.
  • 68. Devizes Gazette, 25 Aug., 22 Sept. 1831.
  • 69. Ibid. 29 Sept.; Radnor mss 1381, Suffolk to Radnor, 11 Sept., reply, 12 Sept. 1831; Wilts. RO, Marlborough (Burke) mss 124/1/177.
  • 70. Salisbury Jnl. 3 Oct.; Devizes Gazette, 6 Oct.; Lansdowne mss, Methuen to Durham, 15 Sept., to Lansdowne, 21 Sept. 1831.
  • 71. LJ, lxiii. 1053.
  • 72. Devizes Gazette, 13, 20 Oct., 3, 17 Nov.; Salisbury Jnl. 24, 31 Oct., 21 Nov.; The Times, 31 Oct., 18 Nov. 1831; Moore Jnl. iv. 1436-7; Moody, 214-17.
  • 73. Grey mss; R. W. Davis, ‘Whigs and Idea of Electoral Deference’, Durham Univ. Jnl. lxvii (1974), 85.
  • 74. PP (1831-2), xl. 95; VCH Wilts. v. 299-301.
  • 75. Devizes Gazette, 28 June, 12 July, 11 Oct., 20, 27 Dec.; Salisbury Jnl. 24 Dec.; The Times, 8, 25 Dec. 1832.