Co. Londonderry


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

about 8,500 in 1815


 Hon. William Ponsonby978
 Samuel Lyle608
19 July 1814 ALEXANDER STEWART II vice Stewart, called to the Upper House 
7 Aug. 1815 GEORGE ROBERT DAWSON vice Ponsonby, deceased 

Main Article

Londonderry, a largely protestant county in which linen manufacture flourished, was under the electoral influence of the major tenants of four of the 12 City companies who had been the leading landlords since the Ulster plantation and had let their land in perpetuity. The preponderance lay with the Beresford clan, headed by the Marquess of Waterford and descended from the original manager of the plantation (one of them, John Claudius Beresford* was even now agent to the London companies). Waterford leased 24,000 acres from the Drapers, in conjunction with Beresford’s brother-in-law Sir George Fitzgerald Hill*, until 1820. The Stewarts, Lord Castlereagh’s* family, also had a great interest, through the tenancy of Alexander Stewart, younger brother of Castlereagh’s father. Otherwise the Ponsonbys and Alexander Ogilby of Dungiven, tenants of the Skinners; Sir William Rowley who held 39,000 acres from the Drapers, and Thomas Connolly who leased two substantial estates from the Grocers and Vintners but who died in 1803, held the chief interests.1 In the balance of forces, minor interests such as those of Lord Caledon and his brother Henry Alexander*, James Du Pré* and George Canning II* of Garvagh also played a role. Electioneering was complicated by the singular importance in the county of the port of Londonderry, as government patronage, so the county Members complained, went mostly to the Member for the city;2 but the major drama in county elections was the confrontation between the Beresfords and the Ponsonbys, representing the smouldering embers of the old battle between Castle and Patriots in the Irish parliament.

The Members in 1801 were Castlereagh’s half-brother Charles William Stewart and Sir George Hill, returned a fortnight after the meeting of the Imperial Parliament in place of Henry de la Poer Beresford, who on 3 Dec. 1800 had succeeded his father as 2nd Marquess of Waterford. Hill, the city Member hitherto, was acting as a locum tenens until the marquess’s brother, Lord George Thomas Beresford, came of age, which he did before the election of 1802. The scene was now set for a coalition of the Beresfords and Stewarts to dominate county elections and to share the local patronage.3 In 1806 the Members issued a joint address, the more readily as they were confronted by two Whig opponents, Col. William Ponsonby and Samuel Lyle of The Oaks. As Ponsonby was a member of the leading Irish Whig family, then in power, he could expect government support, particularly as Stewart was in opposition: but government were hamstrung by their wish not to alienate the Beresford squad, who ever since they came into office had been trying to prevent local patronage, which they claimed for themselves and for Hill, from going to the Ponsonbys, indicating that their support depended on it. The premier and the viceroy tried to promote a compromise whereby the customs and excise patronage of Londonderry were split between the two families, but this pleased neither, the Ponsonbys urging that the customs, which was to be awarded to the Beresfords, carried more electoral weight in the county.4

Ponsonby and Lyle claimed in 1806 that they meant to rescue the county ‘from the condition of a close borough’. They also claimed, on the basis of a meeting on 29 Oct., that they had the support of the linen trade, for which Lord George Beresford had put in his bid; but their opponents rebutted this by pointing out that not more than 25 of 79 signatures to the address in question were actual freeholders. In combination, the Beresford and Stewart interests proved too strong for Ponsonby, who was sanguine and hoped to carry Lyle as well. His petition against the return failed.5 Ponsonby admitted that the registration of his votes was inadequate, but his defeat, said to have cost £15,000, caused bad blood in the cabinet, where Lord Howick, his uncle by marriage, was his champion.6 In 1807, Beresford and Stewart again united, both being favourable to the Portland ministry. Ponsonby again came forward, with the advantage of Sir William Rowley’s newly registered votes, but on 22 May he declined a poll, thereby saving some embarrassment to the Stewart family who found that one of their allies, Lord Caledon, wished to support Ponsonby with Stewart, a slap in the face for the Beresfords which they could not well condone.7

When Parliament was dissolved in 1812 both seats were vacant, Beresford and Stewart having accepted office. The new writs issued on 29 July were superseded by the general election. Ponsonby, who was serving in the Peninsula, offered again, his uncle George having canvassed for him.8 As Beresford lacked confidence for a contest and chose the safety of the family borough of Coleraine, Ponsonby came in unopposed. Stewart was replaced by his uncle Alexander when he obtained a peerage in 1814. The latter’s declaration proved decisive in averting a contest after Ponsonby had been slain at Waterloo: it was given for George Dawson. His kinship with the Beresfords and connexion with the chief secretary, as well as the assistance of Sir George Hill, who regarded the late Ponsonby ‘as having succeeded on and reinforced the Roman Catholic interest’, made him a strong candidate, though his estate was modest. His opponent, not, as expected, the Whig leader George Ponsonby but ‘young William Ponsonby’, was deterred by Stewart’s decision. As before, the Ponsonbys’ registrations were inadequate.9

The election of 1818 was uncontested. Alexander Stewart, ailing and dissatisfied with the preference given to the Beresfords in patronage, made way for his son, as anticipated. Dawson was challenged on the hustings when he claimed independence. ‘It is folly’, remonstrated a freeholder, ‘to talk of the independent freeholders, situated as the county is at present; they have no voice in the choice. It is to the junction of two great families, who happen to have a great registry at present, that he owes his election.’ Dawson claimed that ‘the very man’ who thus contradicted him had signed his return. He had also succeeded in preventing George Canning of Garvagh, brother-in-law of Lord Stewart, from making a nuisance of himself after hinting that he meant to stand for the county with the assistance of the Ogilby interest, by furthering, through the mediation of Lord Waterford, Canning’s private ambition to secure a peerage.10

Author: P. J. Jupp


  • 1. Wakefield, Account of Ireland, ii. 307; Econ. H. R. (ser. 2), xv. 103; E. Austin Currie, Derriana (1979), 33, 35.
  • 2. Add. 40271, f. 302.
  • 3. Wickham mss 1/6, Castlereagh to Wickham, 17 Nov. 1802.
  • 4. HMC Fortescue, viii. 128, 229, 232, 249, 267, 314, 404, 432; Fortescue mss, Grenville to Elliot, 24 June, 21 Aug., to Bedford, 14 Aug., Bedford to Grenville, 14 July, Ponsonby to same, 21 Aug. 1806.
  • 5. Dublin Evening Post, 6 Nov.; Belfast News Letter, 18, 25 Nov. 1806, 2 Jan. 1807; Grey mss, Howick to Alexander, 6 Nov. 1806; CJ, lxii. 20.
  • 6. Grey mss, Howick to Bedford, 11 Nov., 4 Dec. 1806, 15 Jan. replies 17 Nov., 5 Jan. 1807; PRO NI, Abercorn mss IB3/11/29, 12/34.
  • 7. Belfast News Letter, 15, 22, 26, 29 May 1807; NLI, Richmond mss 69/1226.
  • 8. Fortescue mss, Ponsonby to Grenville, 22 Sept., 10 Nov. 1811.
  • 9. Camden mss C502/1; Add. 40190, f. 232; 40212, ff. 102, 104; 40246, f. 242; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F83/1/1; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 22 July 1815.
  • 10. Add. 40271, ff. 248, 250, 302; 40274, f. 69; 40279, f. 16; Dublin Corresp. 11, 14 July 1818; PRO NI, Hill mss 224, 225, Dawson to Waterford and to Sir G. F. Hill, 26 Aug. [1817].