Wednesday, 25 February 2015

How I almost met the Queen

I almost met the Queen on more than one occasion. The first was when a full royal cortege arrived to open a new building at the college where I was working. A queue of us was all lined up to be introduced to Her Majesty and exchange a few harmless pleasantries, but Prince Philip, quite understandably, got bored and broke ranks to come and chat to our end of the line, with the result that when the Queen's minders saw that we were so engaged, they sailed right past us.
   I'm sorry to have to confess that on this royal visit I committed a major solecism. We had all been carefully instructed that we should never under any circumstances initiate a topic of conversation when meeting a member of the royal family: it was absolutely forbidden. I thought: how ghastly for them; always having to start conversations themselves! Poor things! I'd hate that! My responsibility on this occasion was to escort a minor royal (I won't name him) around the premises. He had so little to say that I actually asked him a question about what he thought of the new building. I must report that he showed no sign of being offended at this grave breach of protocol.

   I did have a proper conversation with Prince Philip on a later visit to the college. One of my jobs there was to run a little bookshop for the students, since there was none in the town. The room was all vetted beforehand, with a police dog having a good sniff at all my books, and then Prince Philip had a look round. His eye was caught by a two-volume life of Margaret Thatcher which had recently been published, and asked me why there were two volumes. I explained that one was about her before she became Prime Minister and the other was about her as Prime Minister. For a moment I got the impression that he was about to tell me what he actually thought of Mrs Thatcher, but if that was ever the case then discretion prevailed and he said nothing.
 Next door to my bookshop was the careers office, where the man in charge had laid out a survey of where our students went. Prince Philip swept this aside and asked, "Got any details of how many get sent to prison?" The college authorities who were in attendance did not look pleased. I suppose if we'd thought quickly enough we could have made some little joke about "being guests of your lady wife", but of course you only think of these things long after the occasion has passed.

My final near-meeting was when we went to a school polo tournament in Windsor Great Park. Just before the final was due to start there was an announcement over the public address system, "When the tournament is finished, will all teams gather together at control". What then happened was that the Queen drove up, unannounced, in her own Jaguar to present the trophies and meet the teams. There was no security whatsoever: her car passed within a few yards of me, and despite the fact that I was holding a camera with a long telephoto lens, nobody took any notice at all.
    What followed could have been a lot better. Our team had expected to do well, but unfortunately had performed disappointingly and had been eliminated early on. In consequence, the captain had gone home in disgust; the second member of the team had changed out of his kit and was introduced to the Queen whilst wearing a pair of disgusting purple shorts, and the youngest member was so nervous that he addressed the Queen as "Sir" throughout their conversation. It wasn't one of our greatest moments.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Robert Clive in Shropshire; and what followed

(This follows my previous entry on "Shropshire politics in the 18th century")

It has always been accepted by historians that the British political scene changed after 1760. A young King, George III, came to the throne, succeeding his elderly grandfather, George II, who neither liked nor understood British Parliamentary politics and was always happier back home in Hanover, in north-western Germany, where he actually spent half his reign. The Jacobite challenge, which had dominated politics earlier in the century, was now dead, and the old party labels of Whig and Tory now carried little meaning. Party politics had actually been in a state of disintegration ever since the death of the long-serving Prime Minister, Henry Pelham, in 1754, but for a while this political meltdown was concealed by the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War with France in 1756 and the creation of a wartime coalition government under the Duke of Newcastle, Pelham’s brother and now leader of the “Old Whigs”, and William Pitt, whose whole appeal was cross-party, or indeed anti-party. By the time of George III’s accession in 1760, the war was clearly being won, and discussion now centred on how best to bring it to a close. Disagreements between Pitt and Newcastle quickly surfaced, and the new King complicated matters by his known dislike for both of them and his preference for his former tutor, Lord Bute. The upshot was a decade of political chaos and weak, short-lived governments. Pitt resigned in 1761 and Newcastle in 1762, leaving Bute to be Prime Minister and push through a compromise peace treaty with France. But he resigned next year, to be followed by George Grenville (1763-5), Lord Rockingham (1765-6), William Pitt returning to office as Earl of Chatham (1766-8) and the Duke of Grafton (1678-70). Stability was only restored under Lord North (1770-82), who however presided over defeat at the hands of the American colonists. (All this is covered in much more detail in my three earlier blog entries on George III and Lord Bute). A far greater factor in Shropshire politics in the second half of the century was the return to his native county of Robert Clive.

Robert Clive, from Styche Hall in Shropshire, was born in 1725. As a teenager he was sent out to Madras as a “writer” (clerk) in the East India Company at the princely sum of £5 a year. India in the 18th century was a mysterious land, several months’ sailing time from Britain, to which young men like Clive ventured to seek their fortunes. Many of them were never heard of again, but a small number returned, perhaps suffering from strange diseases or addicted to opium, but possessed of enormous wealth, gained by means of which it was best not to inquire. William Pitt’s grandfather, “Diamond” Pitt, had been one of these. 
     British possessions in India at this time amounted to little more than footholds around the three bases of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, where they warily faced the nearby bases of the French East India Company. Soon after Clive’s arrival, the War of the Austrian Succession spread to India, and he was able to demonstrate great military and diplomatic talents in repelling the attempts of the French and their Indian allies to drive the British from Madras.  It was the start of the Clive legend. 
    In 1753 he married and returned to England, already a hero and rich enough to stand for Parliament at Mitchell, a notoriously venal “rotten borough” in Cornwall. There he spent £5,000 in a successful campaign to win over the 55 voters of the constituency, only to have the result overturned by a vote of the House of Commons on the grounds of corruption!
   He returned to India, where his reputation soared to new heights. He defeated the pro-French forces at the battle of Plassey, regained Calcutta for the East India Company and deposed the local Nawab (the representative of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi), replacing him with his pro-British cousin. The British position in Bengal (roughly equivalent to the modern Bangladesh) now looked secure, and Clive returned home in 1760. He was hailed by William Pitt as a “heaven-born general”.
     Clive was now not only a hero, but an extremely rich man: rewards given him by the new Nawab were said to amount to £234,000. He began the rebuilding of his ancestral home at Styche, and rented a country house at Condover, near Shrewsbury. He was resolved to establish a base in Parliament, and formed an alliance in Shropshire with Lord Powis. A general election was due in 1761. Clive’s father Richard could expect to be returned unopposed for Montgomery, which was under Powis’s control, and in Shrewsbury Robert Clive and the sitting M.P. Thomas Hill were Powis’s preferred candidates.

The threat that Powis faced in1761 came not from new money but something older. William Pulteney had led the opposition to Sir Robert Walpole’s government for almost twenty years, but after the fall of his great enemy in 1742 he had proved a complete failure in government, accepted a peerage as Earl of Bath and retired from active politics. By 1760 he was a very rich man, and generally despised as a miser. He now re-entered the political scene by establishing a link with Lord Bute, George III’s favourite, and using this on behalf of his son, Lord Pulteney.
      Pulteney was already M.P. for Old Sarum, the most notorious “rotten borough” in the country, but now his ambitions were transferred to Shrewsbury. When in 1759 it became known that Robert More, one of the sitting M.P.s, intended to retire, Bath approached him to seek support, only to be rebuffed. The Mayor of Shrewsbury reported that the town corporation was backing Thomas Hill and Robert Clive (who at this stage, it should be noted, was still out in India), and that Pulteney could expect little support.
   Pulteney’s next move was extraordinary. He wrote to Pitt, offering to raise, at his own expense, a regiment to serve in the war, with himself as Lieutenant-colonel! King George II approved, naming the new regiment the “Royal Volunteers”. It was to be based in Shrewsbury (where it would doubtless have been expected to help with electioneering) and its officers were drawn from some of the most prominent noble and political families in the country. The Duke of Newcastle, desperate to avoid a confrontation with Powis, was thrown into a tizzy, but the electors of Shrewsbury stood firm and in 1761 Pulteney withdrew from the contest and Hill and Clive were returned unopposed. Instead Pulteney was elected for Westminster, but sailed abroad with his new regiment and died of fever in Madrid in early 1763, leaving Lord Bath (who had refused to give any financial support to the new regiment!) without a son and heir.
    Powis’s relationship with the new regime was uncertain. In 1761 he applied without success for Thomas Hill’s son Noel to be appointed Gentleman-Usher to Queen Charlotte, George III’s teenage bride. Then in March 1761, just days before the poll in Shrewsbury, he was abruptly sacked as Lord-Lieutenant for Shropshire, and replaced by Lord Bath. This was clearly done at the instigation of Bute. Two months later Newcastle tried to soften the blow to Powis’s pride by having him appointed Comptroller of the Royal Household and a Privy Councillor. Even so, the whole episode was a sign of how Newcastle’s influence at court was slipping.
The Members of Parliament elected for Shropshire at the 1761 General 
Election were as follows:-
for the County: Sir John Astley and Richard Lyster
for Shrewsbury: Thomas Hill and Robert Clive
for Ludlow: Edward Herbert and Henry Bridgman
for Bridgnorth: William Whitmore and John Grey
for Wenlock: Brooke Forester and Cecil Forester
for Bishop’s Castle: Francis Child and Peregrine Cust
     In the summer of 1761 Robert Clive was ennobled as Baron Clive of Plassey; but since this title was an Irish one, he was able to continue to sit in the House of Commons.

The new Parliament did not meet until October, by which time Pitt had resigned from the government. Newcastle, increasingly uneasy about his own position, appealed to Powis and his “friends” for support. But when Newcastle himself resigned in May 1762, he urged his supporters to remain in office; advice which Powis was only too pleased to accept. But by the autumn Newcastle was becoming alarmed at the peace terms that Bute and his envoy the Duke of Bedford were negotiating with the French, and was thinking that he ought to oppose them. He drew up lists of supporters and opponents: of the Shropshire M.P.s, Whitmore, Bridgman, Herbert, Hill, Clive and the two Foresters were rated as “friends”; Astley, Lyster, Grey, Child and Cust as “opponents”. He now urged Powis to resign from his posts at court: Powis blandly replying that he held them from the King, not from Newcastle! When the peace terms finally came up for a Commons vote in December 1762, the opposition was hopelessly disorganized, and of the Shropshire men only Whitmore, the two Foresters and Clive (together with his father) voted against the government. Bridgman was absent, but reckoned by the new regime to be unreliable, and was sacked from his place on the government payroll in early 1763. Grey did not vote either, but as a known government supporter he retained his salaried sinecure. During the political chaos of the 1760s he loyally voted for whoever was in power, as indeed he did throughout his Parliamentary career. Of the other Shropshire M.P.s, Cust was the only one who spoke on behalf of the government on this occasion. It is uncertain whether any of the others even voted!
    Lord Bath died, generally unlamented, in 1764, and Powis was then restored to his old position as Lord-Lieutenant of Shropshire. The death of Bath’s only son had left him without an heir. His will revealed wealth of well over a million pounds, but only a few legacies. A Pulteney did eventually represent Shrewsbury, though he was only a Pulteney by inheritance: he was a Scottish lawyer named William Johnstone, who had married the daughter of Bath’s cousin and changed his name. After being defeated in a fierce contest at the 1768 General Election he was successful next time round in 1775, and continued to represent Shrewsbury for the next thirty years.

The East India Company proved wholly incapable of governing the vast territory of Bengal, and in 1764 Clive was obliged to return there in an attempt to sort things out, before settling in England for good in 1767. His reforms were unable to prevent the appalling Bengal famine of 1769-70, when perhaps as many of a sixth of the population died. In 1773 Lord North’s government passed a Regulating Act for India, which for the first time brought British territories in India under the control of the Crown, with the appointment of a Governor-General.
   Back in England, Clive bought properties at a dizzying rate. In Shropshire he bought the 6,000 acres of the Walcot estate, where the architect Sir William Chambers was hired to build a new house. Next, he bought the house and estate of Oakley, near Ludlow, from Lord Powis. In 1769 he paid the widow of the Duke of Newcastle £25,000 for Claremont in Surrey, and called in “Capability” Brown to demolish the old house and remodel the gardens. There were town houses in London and Bath as well. He bought estates in Ireland too, one of which he renamed “Plassey” in memory of his great victory in Bengal.  He estimated his personal wealth at well over half a million pounds.
    Clive’s family rose to wealth and prominence on his coat-tails. When the M.P. for Bishop’s Castle, Francis Child, died young in 1763, the local landowner and former M.P. Walter Waring attempted to make a comeback at the ensuing by-election (unwisely rejecting Clive’s offer of £1,000 if he stood down), and was badly defeated by Clive’s cousin George Clive, who then held the seat through to his death in 1779. A few years later Waring gave up the struggle and sold his estate to Clive for £35,000, and with it all his influence in Bishop’s Castle. This enabled Robert Clive’s younger brother, William, to become M.P. for the borough from 1768 to 1770 and again from 1779 to 1820. 
      But Clive proved less surefooted in Westminster politics; supporting at different times Newcastle, Pitt, George Grenville and even the appalling Lord Sandwich. Lord North cannily bid for his support by having him made a Knight of the Bath and Lord-Lieutenant of Shropshire following the death of Lord Powis. This political unreliability was unhelpful to Clive because he always had his enemies in the hierarchy of the East India Company, who sponsored vicious personal attacks on him in the press. Oddly enough in our eyes, he was denounced not for his rapacity towards the Indians but for misappropriating wealth which should by rights have belonged to the Company. In 1773 there was an attempt to impeach him (that is, put him on state trial before the House of Lords) which he managed to defeat with a strong speech in his own defence. He was savagely attacked in the Commons by John Burgoyne, that same General known as “Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne” who achieved unwanted immortality by losing the crucial battle of Saratoga to the American rebels in 1777. 

Clive was far from being the only man to use his vast Indian wealth to enter politics. By the 1780s there were a dozen of them in Parliament, nicknamed the “Nabobs” (a corruption of the Indian title of Nawab). An example from Shropshire was Sir George Pigot, a former Governor of Madras. He bought Sir John Astley’s Patshill estate for £100,000 and entered Parliament for Bridgnorth in 1768. Like Clive, he was rewarded with an Irish peerage, but his subsequent career was far less successful. In 1775 he returned to Madras, but quarreled with local Company officials and was arrested, dying in confinement two years later. His younger brother Hugh, who was an Admiral, succeeded him as M.P. for Bridgnorth in 1778, supporting the Rockingham Whigs.

The General Election held in the summer of 1774 saw Clive in control of no fewer than seven Parliamentary seats, putting him on a par with the greatest nobility in the country, but he did not enjoy his success for long, because in November of that year he died at his house in London.
    What followed has never been adequately explained. There was no proper inquest; instead his body was spirited back to his native Shropshire and hastily buried in an unmarked grave in the little village church of Moreton Say. Why?
     The usual account says that Clive cut his own throat with a penknife. Throughout his life he had exhibited signs of what would now be called a “manic-depressive personality”, and it seems he was in a state of deep depression at the time. But contemporary newspapers attributed his death, rather vaguely, to “apoplexy”, and later theories have suggested that he died of an overdose of opium, taken in an attempt to stave off the agonizing pains of gallstones. It is unlikely that the truth will ever be known.

Moreton Say church today. It was rebuilt in the 1780s, and a small plaque to Clive was erected.

The Earl of Powis died in 1772, and was succeeded in the title by his son Edward Herbert. But he died unmarried in 1801, and the estate passed to his sister, Henrietta, who was married to Robert Clive’s eldest son Edward (M.P. for Ludlow 1774-94). The families of Herbert and Clive were thus united, and Edward Clive was duly created Earl of Powis in 1804. Edward’s younger brother Robert served as M.P. for Ludlow from 1794 to 1807. Both Ludlow and Bishop’s Castle were rapidly becoming pocket boroughs of the family.

In the 1770s Lord North managed to restore some political stability. The General Election of 1774 passed with the rapidly deteriorating situation in the American colonies attracting no attention whatsoever in the vast majority of constituencies. But after the defeat at Saratoga and the entry of France into the war early in 1778, disaster was clearly looming. There was a revival of radical agitation for reform, and in the summer of 1780 came the Gordon Riots in London; an anti-Catholic rampage where the government lost control of its own capital city for an entire week.
   The General Election of 1780 was the closest for forty years. No 18th century government was ever defeated at the polls, but Lord North’s ministry was left on a knife-edge. Shropshire, however, seemed hardly affected at all. A Whitmore still sat for Bridgnorth, a Forester for Wenlock, and Clives for Ludlow and Bishop’s Castle. Henry Bridgman had switched from Ludlow to Wenlock in 1768. The County was represented by two gentlemen with the name of Hill, who were in fact second cousins: Richard Hill was the son of Sir Rowland Hill of Hawkstone in the north of the county, whereas Noel Hill was the son of Thomas Hill (born Harwood - see my previous blog entry), and had succeeded his father as M.P. for Shrewsbury in 1768, and was then returned unopposed for the County in 1774 and 1780. He was never known to have spoken in the House of Commons. 
      Of the new names, Hugh Pigot was an Admiral who succeeded his elder brother Sir George as M.P. for Bridgnorth in 1778, supporting the Rockingham Whigs. Charlton Leighton was a local landowner who had won at Shrewsbury in 1774 only to be unseated on petition, but had been returned unopposed in 1780. Frederick Cornewall was another local gentleman, whose father had married a Herbert girl and served briefly as M.P. for Montgomery: he himself had represented Leominster before being returned for Ludlow in 1780. He died in 1783.  Henry Strachey had two separate spells representing Bishop’s Castle, interspersed with other periods representing Pontefract, Saltash and East Grinstead. He had begun his career as secretary to Lord Clive, and was on his way to becoming a full-time civil servant in Parliament.

In February 1782, following the news of the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, there was a series of Parliamentary motions criticizing Lord North’s government for its disastrous conduct of the American war. The voting was extremely tight, but resulted in one of the very rare instances in which an 18th century government was defeated in the House of Commons and forced to resign.
       The Shropshire M.P.s were evenly split on the issue, and in contrast to their thin turnout in 1762, all of them voted, apart from Henry Bridgman of Wenlock who was absent abroad. The Clive group, who now controlled the four Members for Ludlow and Bishop’s Castle, solidly supported the government. Noel Hill and Richard Hill, representing the County, voted with the opposition, as did Thomas Whitmore and Hugh Pigot the Admiral and Nabob’s brother at Bridgnorth. At Wenlock, George Forester was firmly anti-government; and so was Charlton Leighton at Shrewsbury, whereas William Pulteney switched his vote from government to opposition.

Lord North’s government resigned following these votes, to be followed by almost two years of political chaos, with the short-lived governments of Rockingham, Shelburne and Portland (the “Fox-North coalition”). Finally in December 1783 King George III appointed William Pitt, son of the great Lord Chatham, as Prime Minister at the age of just 24. Pitt was in a hopeless minority in the Commons, and was kept going only by the support of the King and his own determination. Then in the spring of 1784 he called a General Election, less than four years after the previous one (which was unprecedented in the 18th century), and won it with a large majority. Historians have debated ever since whether this represented a genuine swing of popular opinion, or whether it was achieved by the usual corrupt methods of the time. Pitt then remained in office till 1801. 
    Most of the Shropshire M.P.s supported Pitt's government. Hugh Pigot, who did not, was defeated at Bridgnorth in 1784; but he was notoriously a nouveau riche incomer, not from one of the old-established local families. Otherwise the immediate changes were few. Henry Bridgman’s son John changed his name to Simpson in 1785 after inheriting property from an uncle, and under that name represented Wenlock in Parliament from 1794 to 1820. Noel Hill, who had inherited the country house at Attingham, south-east of Shrewsbury. was given a peerage, with the title of Lord Berwick. George Forester stood down at Wenlock, but then returned at a by-election soon afterwards. John Kynaston, whose uncle Edward had represented Bishop’s Castle back in the 1730s, was elected for the County. Gentlemen with familiar names, Foresters and Whitmores and Clives, continued to serve as M.P.s for Shropshire constituencies through into the nineteenth or even the twentieth century.
The last word on Robert Clive, albeit an extremely biased one, should go to the great Victorian historian Lord Macaulay. He described Clive as "A great wicked lord who had ordered the walls around his house to be made so thick in order to keep out the devil".          

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 fiancĂ©e. 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.