Monday, 2 February 2015

Shropshire Politics in the 18th Century: part 1

       In the 18th century, Shropshire returned 12 Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. Two were elected for the county, and two each for the five corporate boroughs: Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Bridgnorth, Bishop’s Castle and Wenlock (nowadays usually called Much Wenlock). The county members were elected by men who owned land with a nominal value of £2 per year (the famous “forty-shilling freeholders”) and the borough members by a mixture of freemen of the town, ratepayers, town councillors and property-owners. All voters in these constituencies were entitled to two votes, though they could not cast them both for the same candidate. In reality the actual casting of votes was uncommon, since electioneering was so expensive that candidates who found they had little chance of winning usually withdrew well before the poll, leaving two men to be returned unopposed at the time of the election.

      This was typical for the time, but there were some features which made Shropshire politics unusual  Firstly, only one of these boroughs, Bishop’s Castle, was thoroughly corrupt, with votes openly for sale, and complete outsiders could be returned there as Members of Parliament, provided they had the necessary money. In the other boroughs, men from the same families were returned as M.P.s for decade after decade, until well into the 19th or even the 20th century; Foresters for Wenlock, Whitmores for Bridgnorth, Herberts and Hills for Shrewsbury, to be joined in the mid-18th century by Clives.

        Secondly, since the death in 1734 of Henry Newport, third Earl of Bradford, the owner of the great house of Weston Park, the county was not dominated by any one noble family. The nearest Shropshire came to a single leader was Henry Arthur Herbert, M.P. for Ludlow as his father Francis had been before him. In 1743 he was given the title of Lord Herbert of Chirbury, which had become extinct five years earlier, and when a very distant cousin, the Marquess of Powis, died without issue in 1748, Herbert was rewarded for his support for the government by being created Earl of Powis. He cemented his position three years later by marrying Barbara, niece of the late Marquess, and inheriting all the Powis estates. He was appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Shropshire, Recorder of Ludlow and of Shrewsbury, and Deputy Lieutenant of the neighbouring Welsh county of Montgomery.  He was thus the richest and most powerful man in the region, and the natural leader of the county’s M.P.s; and yet he could only guide them and liaise between them and the government; he never exercised any despotic control over them.

       Thirdly, the government had no direct control in Shropshire. In many places the ministers of the day were able to influence elections, especially in the seaports, by the awarding of contracts to supply the navy or by the appointment of customs and excise officials, or even by the awarding of lucrative positions in the Church of England. In the 18th century such benefits were quite blatantly awarded by political favouritism. All that could happen in Shropshire was that Powis (or one of his opponents) would solicit favours from the Crown to reward his friends and supporters. The man he would apply to would be the Duke of Newcastle, who had built up a huge network of patronage over a period of forty years as Secretary of State. But Newcastle’s grip fell apart after 1760, as we shall see.

The fundamental political division in the first half of the 18th century was between Whigs and Tories, who had competed for power under William III and Queen Anne. But after 1714 the Whigs had a monopoly hold on government, for they were strongly supported by the Hanoverian monarchs, George I and George II, whereas the Tories were tainted with Jacobitism; supporting the exiled Stuart claimants to the throne. Jacobite plotters had believed that Shropshire overwhelmingly supported their cause. But after the failure of the great Jacobite rising of 1745-6 these questions were of decreasing importance; the names survived, but by the late 1750s both Whig and Tory parties were disintegrating, and the old party labels were largely irrelevant to the composition of governments.

The county of Shropshire had approximately 4,000 freeholders with a vote; but in point of fact votes were very seldom actually cast. There had been no poll for the two M.P.s representing the county of Shropshire since 1722; and in this Shropshire was typical of almost every county in England. In mid-century the county was represented by two local landowning gentlemen, both in their seventies: Sir John Astley (serving from 1734 to 1772) and Richard Lyster (1740 to 1766). Both were lifelong Tories, and both had previously served as M.P.s for Shrewsbury, but latterly there was a tacit agreement to let the Tories have the County seats and leave Shrewsbury to the Whigs. Both Astley and Lyster would continue to represent the County until their deaths. Neither is recorded as ever making a speech in Parliament.
     Shrewsbury went to the poll quite frequently in the 18th century. In the 1722 general election there were over 1,300 voters in the town, but thereafter the number was severely reduced. It was ruled that men who lived in Abbey Foregate, east of the River Severn, or in other suburbs, were ineligible to vote, with the result that in the 1747 election only some 300 voted. The two M.P.s in mid-century were Thomas Hill and Robert More. There were several different branches of the Hill family in Shropshire: this man was born Thomas Harwood in 1693, but had married the daughter of Rowland Hill of Hawkestone and become the nephew and heir of the diplomat and financier Sir Richard Hill. He had accordingly changed his name to that of his benefactor; a common practice at the time. He represented Shrewsbury from 1749 to 1768, when he was succeeded by his son, Noel. For more than fifty years, there was almost always someone bearing the name of Hill representing the town, and in 1780 both M.P.s for the County were Hills.
     Robert More was an old Puritan Whig; proud of his descent from a Cromwellian commander. He was a noted botanist, and a friend of the great Linnaeus. He sat for Bishop’s Castle from 1727 to 1741, as his great-grandfather and his uncle had done, and then for Shrewsbury from 1754 to 1761, when he decided to retire at the General Election. But his great-grandson represented Shrewsbury, and then Ludlow, through to his death in 1903; once again demonstrating the hereditary nature of Shropshire politics.

Bridgnorth had one of the largest electorates to be found in any town in Britain, but this did not lead to anything we would recognize today as being “democratic”. Over a thousand people had voted in each of the elections earlier in the century, but after 1741 there were to be no more polls in the town for almost 90 years. In addition, Bridgnorth behaved as if it was the private property of the Whitmore family. The brothers Sir Thomas and then William Whitmore, both loyal Old Whigs, represented it in Parliament from 1734 to 1771, as their father had done before them, to be succeeded by their nephews Thomas and then John Whitmore from 1771 to 1812. There was always a Whitmore sitting for Bridgnorth, right through till 1870. The other Bridgnorth M.P. in mid-century was John Grey, the son of the Earl of Stamford at nearby Enville Hall, an ally of the Whitmores. He represented Bridgnorth from 1754 to 1768, before transferring to Tregony in Cornwall. He was on the government payroll right through till his death in 1777.

Wenlock was believed to have 200-300 voters, though it would be difficult to be certain, since no poll took place there between 1722 and 1820. Representation was overwhelmingly in the hands of the Forester family, of whom no fewer than six generations bearing the name, plus two in-laws, represented the town between 1678 and 1885, when the constituency was finally abolished. Indeed, from 1734 there was never a period for more than a year when a Forester did not sit for Wenlock, nor did any Forester ever sit for any other constituency. In the mid-18th century the town was even represented by two Forester brothers: Brooke (1739-68) and Cecil (1761-8). National political controversies had very little relevance to Wenlock elections.

In Ludlow, 710 men voted in the election of 1727, but there were no further polls there until 1812, by which time the town’s electoral roll had fallen to fewer than 100. For much of this period it was under the control of the Herbert family. Henry Arthur Herbert served as M.P. from 1727 until his elevation to the peerage in 1743, when he was succeeded by a remote cousin from Ireland, Edward Herbert, who also acted as his land-agent. Henry’s brother Richard also represented Ludlow from 1727 to 1741 and 1743-5, and Edward was succeeded by his own son Thomas from 1770 to 1774. Henry’s nephew, William Fellowes, was another Ludlow M.P. in the family, from 1768 to 1774. An ally of Powis, Henry Bridgman (who had inherited Weston Park from the Earls of Bradford through his mother) also represented Ludlow for twenty years until 1768, when he transferred to Wenlock.

     So in Shropshire there was no equivalent of the classic “pocket boroughs”: constituencies with tiny electorates which were completely owned by a single family. Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, Wenlock and Ludlow had electorates of a reasonable size for the time; it was just that they often behaved like pocket boroughs.
  Bishop’s Castle was quite different. The voters there, of whom there were between 50 and 150, would take money for their votes from anyone, even complete strangers. In 1726 a local landowner, Charles Mason, complained that 47 of the voters had received over £667 between them from a rival candidate, many of them being his own tenants! Consequently the town had as its representatives an interesting selection of rich men: bankers and merchants and, later in the century, a distinguished lawyer, Alexander Wedderburn, who later became Lord Chancellor. One odd result of this was that Bishop’s Castle had more polls in the 18th century than any other Shropshire town except Shrewsbury.
       A local landowners, Walter Waring, was elected for Bishop’s Castle in 1755, but being short of money he stood down four years later in favour of a complete stranger from a famous family: Henry Grenville, brother of Earl Temple and George Grenville (a future Prime Minister) and brother-in-law of the great William Pitt. In the 1761 general election Bishop’s Castle returned two candidates unopposed at the poll: Peregrine Cust, the younger son of a baronet and now a prosperous merchant, and Francis Child, aged only 25 but already head of the famous bank of the same name. Child was not a complete stranger to the town, since his late father Samuel had represented it in Parliament from 1747 to 1752. Child spent £1,200 on his election, helped by a local landowner, Charles Walcot, who was in debt to the bank. Francis Child died in 1763 at the age of just 28, leaving an immense fortune, including £50,000 to his fiancée. The expenses of electioneering must have meant little to him. (To put these figures into context, we should remember that a majority of families in England had to survive on less than £25 a year)

As de facto leader of the Shropshire M.P.s, one of Powis’s functions was to solicit favours for his friends. Thus in 1754 he wrote to the Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, on behalf of George Whitmore and John Shrympster, a client of the Foresters, seeking salaried positions within the government (back in 1748 Whitmore had unsuccessfully lobbied to be appointed Governor of North Carolina!). Although Powis hinted that there might be political repercussions if nothing was forthcoming, Newcastle regretfully informed him that no suitable posts were currently available. Powis next sought to have Whitmore appointed to the Victualling Office, which supplied food to the Navy; to which the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Anson, replied scornfully that Whitmore knew nothing of the sea and there were too many useless officials in the Victualling Office already! Nevertheless, Powis’s lobbying eventually bore fruit in December 1755, when Whitmore was appointed Commissioner of Stamp Duties.
     In 1759 Powis tried again, this time on behalf of Cecil Forester, who was already a Lieutenant-Colonel and now wanted to be made a full Colonel or aide-de-camp to the King. Newcastle had regretfully to inform Powis that he had no control over army appointments. Forester seems to have left the army in disgust, but apparently bore Newcastle no ill-will when he entered Parliament at the 1761 general election. It sounds astonishing to us that transactions like this should happen at a time when Britain was fighting a desperate war against the French!

Of the twelve Members of Parliament returned for Shropshire constituencies in 1761, some were classed as Whigs and some as Tories, though these labels now meant very little in practice. They could hardly be called a loquacious bunch, since several of them never made speeches, and were often absent for vital debates. Serving as an M.P. was really a matter of prestige and social status, and did not necessarily reflect any great interest in the doings of Parliament.

    Politics would be different after 1761, partly in a reflection of changes at government level, and partly because of the irruption into Shropshire of a new and powerful force in the shape of Robert Clive of India. Both these will be covered in the second part of this essay.  

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