Wootton Bassett


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

Background Information

Right of Election:

in inhabitants paying scot and lot

Estimated number qualified to vote:

about 250

Number of voters:

227 in 1826


1,438 (1831)


16 Mar. 1820HORACE TWISS 
 Richard Ellison 
 John Gordon 
19 June 1826HORACE TWISS156
 John Bayley71
 [--] Sewell 171
30 Apr. 1831PHILIP HENRY STANHOPE, Visct. Mahon 
 Horace Twiss 
 Thomas Hyde Villiers 

Main Article

Described by William Cobbett† as a ‘rotten-hole’ and a ‘mean, vile place’, Wootton Bassett was a predominantly agricultural town with a declining market and virtually no trade. It consisted of one street, on the Cricklade to Chippenham road, made up of plots of a burgage character, which were occasionally advertised for sale as conferring the right of election for the borough, Cricklade and the county. In 1821, when no population figure was ascertained for the borough, the parish in which it lay contained 379 houses and 1,701 residents.2 All householders paying scot and lot, and legally settled within the borough, were entitled to vote, as were the mayor, two aldermen and 12 capital burgesses, who together formed the self-electing corporation (and were not necessarily required to live locally).3 Election expenses were high (nearly £8,000 in 1796), and while the Spectator called it a ‘decayed, miserable town, celebrated for its corruption’, the municipal corporations report merely noted that ‘it would be worthless to describe the circumstances which gave the place a pre-eminence among the worst of rotten boroughs’.4 But despite its venal character, it did display some elements of independent politics, and anti-Catholic and anti-reform sentiment was influential at elections.5

The patronage of the borough had long been disputed between the families of the Tory earls of Clarendon of The Grove, near Watford, Hertfordshire, and the Whig Viscounts Bolingbroke of nearby Lydiard Park, though from the late eighteenth century they had arranged to divide the representation between them.6 The 2nd earl of Clarendon, former Member for Christchurch and Helston, who, according to Maria Edgeworth, was a ‘very agreeable thin old nobleman of the old school’, was lord of the manor and owned a good deal of property in the town.7 He probably exercised most of the influence through his brother John Charles Villiers*, who had been a capital burgess and town clerk since 1796.8 The 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke, former Member for Cricklade, led an interest which, because of its control of the corporation, had once been stronger than Clarendon’s. However, it had suffered at the hands of an ascendant independent interest in the early nineteenth century and, since 1814, the only family member remaining on the corporation was Bolingbroke’s second son, General Frederick St. John of Chailey, Sussex. By 1820 this third interest was firmly controlled by the ministerialist lawyer and banker Joseph Pitt, Member for Cricklade, who had a majority on the corporation (of which he had been a member since 1814), owned many of the houses in the borough and sought to obtain others through the courts in order to increase his support.9

Wootton Bassett was expected to be a ‘scene of action’ at the general election of 1820, when Lord Suffolk, who resided locally, described the town as a ‘vile corrupt place’, the voters being ‘some of the greatest scoundrels in Wiltshire’.10 While William Taylor Money of Walthamstow, Essex, transferred to Mitchell, Pitt put up the other sitting Member, Richard Ellison of Sudbrooke Holme, Lincolnshire, with a man from the same county, John Gordon, probably the former Member for Athlone. George Philips of Sedgley, Lancashire, a leading Manchester cotton merchant, who owned property in Wootton Bassett and incurred very high expenses for his various returns, stood as a Whig on the Bolingbroke interest. The London barrister Horace Twiss, who had been defeated in 1816 and 1818, again came forward with Clarendon’s support, in conjunction with Philips, who, according to one account, was able to ‘stand the blunt’ on behalf of them both.11 On 6 Mar. Twiss wrote to Timothy Stevens, a Cirencester lawyer, to request his attendance on himself and Philips at the election, adding:

You are aware that we stand against the interest of Mr. Pitt, of Mr. [George] Bevir and of Mr. [Joseph Randolph] Mullings [both Cirencester solicitors]. Mr. Mullings is here, doing all he can to oppose us, but I fancy he has as much chance of succeeding as of finding out the philosopher’s stone.12

The contest ended in success for Twiss and Philips, the assessor refusing to consider allegations of bribery at a scrutiny, 22 Mar.13 The defeated candidates and two electors entered a petition, which complained of corruption, the admission of ineligible votes, the early closure of the poll and the deficient scrutiny, 11 May, but the election committee decided against them, 28 June 1820.14

The new Members successfully sponsored a bill to enclose 72 acres of land, most of which was in the possession of Clarendon, during the 1820 session.15 Over the following two years, he and Villiers were involved in local business connected with a turnpike road and the dilapidated town hall, while the agricultural depression, and perhaps a payment of election money, contributed to an affray at the Angel inn, 19 Mar. 1822.16 Villiers succeeded to his brother’s title in March 1824, but retained his place on the corporation. On 17 Aug. Henry Brougham* asked Lord Holland if he were ‘aware of any change in Lord Bolingbroke’s views respecting Wootton Bassett as it had been rumoured that he meant to give it up, and I was asked by a friend to ascertain the truth of the report’.17 Bolingbroke replied to Holland’s inquiry, 11 Sept., that

I have every reason to believe that Mr. Philips will succeed in Wootton Bassett. I see no other chance of his failure than Lord Clarendon’s resolving on bringing forward Mr. Twiss again - the most pernicious alliance he could make - a great talker - and cannot pay. However I hope that circumstances will weigh with Lord Clarendon and that he will find a better man. I should say let the asker make proposals to Lord Clarendon though I don’t think he likes Whigs.18

Bolingbroke was himself succeeded by his son Henry in December 1824. Petitions were presented from the Protestant Dissenters of Wootton Bassett for inquiry into the prosecution of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara (by Philips), 1 June 1824, and from the vicar, mayor, corporation and inhabitants against Catholic relief, 19 Apr. 1825.19

The local paper recorded that a ‘brush’ was likely on the expected dissolution and that the seat ‘will be sure to go to the highest bidder. It will be put up, we understand, at four thousand pounds!’20 By May 1826 ‘fun and frolic’ were anticipated, as the sitting Members had started and were opposed by John Bayley of Upper Harley Street and Blount’s Court, Berkshire, and another respectable London man, one Sewell or Shewell. These two, who received the backing of the independent interest, had been urged to stand by a group of electors who were indignant at the compromise of 1820 and the Members’ pro-Catholic votes. Treating was also rife; it was said that ‘those now sip their champagne, who for the last five years have, from inability to purchase it, been unacquainted with the taste of strong beer’.21 On the first three days of polling, during which Twiss continually and vehemently objected to electors’ qualifications, the sitting Members were in a minority. But their opponents resigned on the fourth, when the numbers were decided in favour of Twiss and Philips, 227 electors having been polled. It was noted that it was the

custom in this borough, when a candidate retires, for the other party to place on the poll all his votes; and Messrs. Bayley and Shewell, not having polled one half of their votes, satisfactorily explains, why, at the close of the poll, they were so much in the minority.22

According to a much later source

matters were somewhat lively, as two candidates, whose chances of success were almost certain, vanished, for reasons best known to themselves, on the day preceding that of the election, taking with them, it was said, what remained of the four thousand sovereigns they brought.23

Bayley and two constituents entered a petition, 4 Dec. 1826, which, in addition to the usual charges of corruption, alleged that the parish officers had deliberately abstained from levying rates on certain individuals so that they would be unable to prove their eligibility as voters. On 8 Feb. 1827 a petition was presented from three other electors claiming that notice had not been served on the sitting Members within the required time limits. Twiss consulted the best legal opinion in the House, and in soliciting the support of Robert Peel, the home secretary, added that ‘all party feeling is out of the question, because my colleague and I, who are jointly petitioned against, vote on opposite sides, which may remove much difficulty’. As he expected, the original petition was duly thrown out on this technicality, 12 Feb.24 Writing to William Huskisson, the secretary for war and the colonies, 28 Dec. 1827, he requested that the possibility of his appointment as chief justice of the Brecon circuit should be kept secret because

if I should succeed in it, and it should be known that my seat was about to be vacated, some candidate would certainly be found to oppose me at Wootton Bassett (which probably would not happen, if the fact were concealed till the moving of the new writ) and I am sorry to say that an opposition at Wootton Bassett, however impotent, is heavily expensive as well as anxiously vexatious.25

He did not, however, receive the office.

Clarendon was praised in the Devizes Gazette, 16 Apr. 1829, for appropriating 50 acres of land to the use of 100 poor families, but in the next issue an angry correspondent from Wootton Bassett pointed out that only those who had voted in his interest in 1826 had benefited from this scheme. He soon achieved dominance in the borough by buying out not only Philips, but also the whole of Pitt’s interest, while Bolingbroke’s influence apparently lapsed again.26 This was dramatically illustrated in the court, 22 June 1830, when Pitt and five others, including his son and Mullings, resigned, and were replaced by four of Clarendon’s nephews (the sons of his next younger brother, George Villiers), including Thomas Hyde Villiers, Member for Hedon, Thomas Hyde Ripley, the rector, and William Warman, a local grocer, tea dealer and draper, who was elected mayor later that year.27 The Devizes Gazette recorded that there would be ‘no more fun’ in the constituency, as it ‘was all up with the "louse bag" party’. However, the following week it apologized for an incorrect statement that Twiss had ‘a seat for life under certain conditions’. In fact, Twiss transferred to Newport, Isle of Wight, Philips retired, and ‘the "louse bags" and the "blues" are united (something new in the annals of Wootton Bassett)’ in favour of Villiers and Viscount Mahon, son of the Ultra 2nd Earl Stanhope.28 Under an undated agreement made with George Villiers

Lord M[ahon] is to be at no expense either of the canvass or election or any petition or any other proceedings arising out of either except his own personal expenses. He is to be also at perfect liberty as to his political conduct. He will go down to canvass if desired and to attend the election. He will pay £1,500 at the expiration of 14 days after the meeting of Parliament if no petition shall have in the meantime been presented and if there shall be any such petition when the seat is secure. He is also to pay the same sum annually beginning on the day twelvemonth after the first payment as long as the Parliament to be now returned shall be in existence.

The document also covered what would happen in the event of Mahon vacating.29 He visited the town on 30 June and returned on 3 July 1830 with Thomas Hyde Villiers, who

had only declared himself a candidate the evening before, so that he and I made a joint application to each of the ‘worthy and independent electors’. Heavens, how many shirtless and coatless gentlemen did we not address with our humblest bow, how many black and horny hands did we not squeeze with gratitude after we had obtained a promise of support! Everywhere our reception was most triumphant, votes were given us as soon as (or in some cases before) we asked them; we had not one single refusal, and only once found a little hesitation in a hump-backed fiddler who was moreover said to be cracked - his instrument certainly was so.

Being in poor health, Mahon was fatigued even by so easy a canvass, and after three and a half hours he left it to Villiers to complete the last quarter of the borough and to harangue the electors, but he nevertheless claimed to have ‘secured every vote’. He was present for the polling, chairing and ‘speechification’ at a quiet and uncontested election, and was duly returned with Villiers.30 In addition to his incidental expenses, Mahon’s account book reveals that he paid £1,500 to George Villiers on 14 Nov. 1830.31

A Wootton Bassett anti-slavery petition was presented by Villiers, 19 Nov. 1830, and a reform one from its gentlemen, yeomen, tradesmen and inhabitants was brought up by Lord John Russell, 17 Feb. 1831.32 On the basis of its population in 1821, the borough was scheduled for disfranchisement in the government’s reform proposals. A memorial from 57 corporators and freeholders against this decision, on the grounds that the town’s population was growing in size and respectability, failed to have it reversed.33 Villiers, in line with Clarendon, who described himself as a ‘decided reformer’, voted for the bill, 22 Mar., 19 Apr., but Mahon, in opposition to his father’s pro-reform stance, voted against it.34 A newspaper report alleged that in reply to a complaint made at the Kent county meeting that Mahon’s interest at Wootton Bassett was worth £2,000 a year, 24 Mar., he had said, ‘No, upon my honour, not above half that sum’. In a letter, 26 Mar. 1831, Mahon denied he had received a shilling from any interest he might have there, though the editor insisted that his involvement was nevertheless still potentially worth that amount.35

At the dissolution, Mahon wrote to his father, 22 Apr. 1831, that ‘I am now negotiating about my re-election and believe I can secure it, but it must be, of course, at a very heavy sacrifice of money’. He evidently achieved this, as another undated note among his papers reads ‘Mr. V. to return Ld. M. upon receiving £1,500 per annum on the same terms and principles as the former engagement between them’, and a payment of this amount was duly made to George Villiers, 6 July.36 Thomas Hyde Villiers, however, was forced by his pro-reform votes to turn to ‘the right about’, and Clarendon, who had recently obliged his tenants with a rent cut, transferred Villiers’s interest to Lord Porchester, who, like his friend Mahon, was a young man of growing literary pretensions. Mahon, who had probably effected the introduction, reported to Ralph Sneyd, 5 May, that his principles ‘are the same as mine’, and indeed, like his father, the 2nd earl of Carnarvon, Porchester had abandoned his earlier Whiggism for a whole-hearted opposition to reform.37 Porchester, who found the canvass ‘fagging’ but successful, reported that in addressing the inhabitants ‘I was obliged to become very abusive of government ... as they would not believe me an anti-reformer’.38 In a contest during which about 190 electors tendered their votes (according to Mahon’s speech in the Commons, 26 July), they defeated Twiss and Villiers, who were both left without seats, although Villiers was provided with one at Bletchingley three months later. The press noted that the voters, fearing it was to be their last election, ‘actually made the candidates "come down black and white" as to the sum, and the day they are to receive their wretched pay’. Immediately thereafter, however, it recorded that those who had been brought into the borough, ‘who were maintained in idleness long enough to constitute them voters, and whose suffrages were afterwards bought and sold as glaringly as corn in the market ... are no longer marketable, and most ... have already become paupers’.39 Porchester’s expenses were judged by his family to have been exorbitant, and some doubt was cast over Mahon’s honesty in settling his share.40

Both Members spoke strongly in the House against reform, and Clarendon wrote to Porchester, 19 July 1831, that ‘in regard to your obliging attention to Wootton Bassett I have written to the Rev. Mr. Ripley for such information as may possibly save the borough from confiscation’.41 Raising a forlorn opposition to its disfranchisement, 26 July, when the costs were put at about £4,000 per election, Mahon argued that one seat might have been retained and defended rotten boroughs as refuges for men of outstanding talent. John Cam Hobhouse* described Porchester’s speech, which largely echoed Mahon’s, as a ‘sort of funeral oration’ over a seat ‘whose chief merit, according to his lordship, was the having returned [the famous 1st] Lord Bolingbroke to Parliament’.42 Its inclusion in schedule A was then agreed without a division. With a total of only 352 houses in 1831, and assessed taxes of £207 a year, it was placed 45th in the final list of condemned boroughs and was duly abolished by the Reform Act, being subsumed into the constituency of Cricklade.43 After arbitration, Mahon was obliged to make a third payment of £1,500 to George Villiers, 30 July 1832.44 The corporation was greatly weakened by the loss of its parliamentary seats in 1832, but it survived the municipal reforms of 1835 and was not finally dissolved until Wootton Bassett was deprived of its borough status in 1886.45

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Sewell (or Shewell) has not been identified, but he may have been J. Shewell, a stockbroker of Throgmorton Street, London.
  • 2. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, iii. 406; VCH Wilts. ix. 187, 189, 194-7; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 50, 51; (1833), xxxvii. 698-9; Devizes Gazette, 14 Nov. 1822, 20 Jan. 1825.
  • 3. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 600; (1835), xxiii. 285.
  • 4. Devizes Mus. cuttings, xvi. 329; Spectator, 1 Jan. 1831; PP (1835), xxiii. 286.
  • 5. F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons, and Parties, 271, 343.
  • 6. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 429, 430; VCH Wilts. v. 226; viii. 198.
  • 7. Edgeworth Letters, 398; Wilts. RO, Clarendon mss 302/1-5.
  • 8. Wilts. RO, Wootton Bassett borough recs. G26/110/2.
  • 9. Ibid; J. Dugdale, New British Traveller (1819), iv. 493; Salisbury Jnl. 13 Mar. 1827.
  • 10. The Times, 7 Feb.; Add. 51830, Suffolk to Holland, 9 Mar. 1820.
  • 11. Warws. RO, MI 247, microfilm of Sir George Philips’s Mems. i. 351, 352; ii. 112; Devizes Gazette, 8 June 1826.
  • 12. Wilts. RO, Keary mss 415/432.
  • 13. Devizes Gazette, 30 Mar. 1820.
  • 14. CJ, lxxv. 189, 190, 364.
  • 15. Ibid. lxxv. 144, 149, 235, 290, 300, 346; Wilts. Inclosure Awards ed. R.E. Sandell (Wilts. Rec. Soc. xxv.), 203.
  • 16. Wootton Bassett borough recs. G26/110/2; Wilts. N. and Q. ii. 93.
  • 17. Add. 51562.
  • 18. Brougham mss.
  • 19. CJ, lxxix. 446; lxxx. 320.
  • 20. Devizes Gazette, 22 Sept. 1825, 23 Mar. 1826.
  • 21. Ibid. 25 May, 8 June 1826; P. J. Gingell, Hist. Wootton Bassett, 25, 26.
  • 22. Bath Gazette, 20 June; The Times, 21 June; Devizes Gazette, 22 June 1826; PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 600.
  • 23. Devizes Mus. cuttings, xvi. 329.
  • 24. Devizes Gazette, 7 Dec. 1826; Add. 40391, f. 301; CJ, lxxxii. 160, 120, 135, 157, 160; PP (1826-7), iv. 1147.
  • 25. Add. 38753, f. 136; Huskisson Pprs. 275.
  • 26. Philips Mems. ii. 112. This fact went unnoticed by some radical publications: e.g. [W. Carpenter], People’s Bk. (1831), 322.
  • 27. Wootton Bassett borough recs. G26/110/2.
  • 28. Devizes Gazette, 1, 8 July 1830.
  • 29. Cent. Kent. Stud. Stanhope mss U1590 C381/1.
  • 30. Ibid. C318/2, Mahon to Lady Stanhope, 5, 29, 30 July 1830; Berks RO, Pusey mss D/EBp C1/15.
  • 31. Stanhope mss A122/1.
  • 32. CJ, lxxxvi. 117, 264; The Times, 18 Feb. 1831.
  • 33. PP (1830-1), 127.
  • 34. Brougham mss, Clarendon to Brougham, 13 Jan. 1832.
  • 35. The Times, 25, 28 Mar. 1831.
  • 36. Stanhope mss C130/11; C381/1; A122/1.
  • 37. Devizes Gazette, 21, 28 Apr. 1831; Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss.
  • 38. Hants RO, Carnarvon mss 75M91/L12/6.
  • 39. Devizes Gazette, 28 Apr., 3 May 1831.
  • 40. Carnarvon mss L3, Howard to Lady Porchester, 25 May 1831; L12/7.
  • 41. Som. RO, Herbert mss DD/DRU/5/6.
  • 42. Broughton, Recollections, iv. 124.
  • 43. PP (1830-1), 110; (1831-2), xxxvi. 50, 51, 141, 202.
  • 44. Stanhope mss A122/1; Pusey mss C1/22.
  • 45. VCH Wilts. ix. 200.