East Looe


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 the freemen

Estimated number qualified to vote:

38 in 18311


770 (1821); 865 (1831)2


3 Mar. 1826HENRY FREDERICK JOHN JAMES PERCEVAL, Visct. Perceval vice Watson Taylor, vacated his seat 
 Henry John George Herbert, Lord Porchesternil
 Robert Campbell Scarlettnil
9 May 1829HENRY THOMAS HOPE vice Buller Elphinstone, vacated his seat 
13 Apr. 1830HENRY THOMAS HOPE re-elected after appointment to office 

Main Article

East Looe was a small port in the south-east of the county, romantically situated on the east side of Looe Bay and connected to West Looe by a bridge over the River Looe. It was a centre of the pilchard fishing industry and had a small trade in coal, limestone, iron and timber. The streets were said in 1824 to be ‘narrow, irregular and in general dirty’, and many of the houses exhibited ‘marks of decay and age’. Nevertheless, the town was becoming increasingly popular as ‘a bathing place, or situation for invalids, or for parties of pleasure’. In 1829 it was linked by canal to Liskeard, eight miles to the north.3 The borough comprised a ‘distinct and separate’ part of the parish of St. Martin. The corporation which, as the investigating commissioner noted in December 1833, had been ‘merely ... kept alive for election purposes’, consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, and 11 other aldermen, who were required to be resident. They and an indefinite number of freemen, whom they elected and who were mostly non-residents, possessed the parliamentary franchise. In practice the number of freemen was kept low: there were only 24 admissions in this period. Since the mid-eighteenth century the controlling interest had been securely in the hands of the Buller family of nearby Trenant Park, successive generations of whom held the office of recorder.4

At the general election of 1820 the patron and sitting Member, Sir Edward Buller, retired owing to declining health and brought in his colleague Thomas Macqueen, a Bedfordshire squire, and George Watson Taylor, a wealthy West India proprietor and Member for Seaford in the previous Parliament. Both, he assured the prime minister Lord Liverpool, were ‘most strenuous’ supporters of his government.5 In 1823 there was an abortive attempt to open the borough. At the Michaelmas mayoral election Robert Grigg, a corn merchant, who had become an alderman the previous year, was chosen by a majority of the aldermen, following an allegedly ‘secret and unconstitutional conclave’ of the Buller faction. The outgoing mayor, John Keast, who had been excluded from this cabal, refused to swear in Grigg on the ground that his election was invalid because four of his supporters were non-resident, in contravention of the Elizabethan charter. During the ensuing legal impasse, some 50 unfranchised inhabitant householders, who were presumably orchestrated by Keast, petitioned the borough’s court leet for the replacement of non-resident aldermen with ‘others of equally unspotted character and reputation’ from among the resident freemen and for the extension of the parliamentary franchise to themselves. Protests were also lodged against Buller’s holding the officer of recorder, despite being neither a resident of the borough nor a lawyer, and against Alderman Thomas Bond’s concurrent appointment as town clerk. While the jury found for the householders, Bond refused to swear them as freemen, and when Keast did so Buller and his friends walked out. They obtained a writ of mandamus to enforce Grigg’s appointment as mayor at the corporation meeting, 26 Nov., when both sides paraded in strength, but the question of the householders’ claim to the franchise remained in abeyance. In December 1823 Rowland Stephenson*, a London banker who had unsuccessfully contested West Looe at a by-election in February 1822 and Newport a year later, gave a dinner in East Looe, at which Keast and the naval Captain John Toup Nicholas, the son of Alderman John Harris Nicholas (who had supported the reformers’ cause), spoke.6 On Buller’s death in April 1824 Trenant Park and the electoral control of East Looe passed to his Scottish son-in-law James Buller Elphinstone, a former East India Company civil servant turned soldier. At Michaelmas that year the independents challenged the legality of the election of James Nicholas, collector of customs, as mayor, on the ground that the ratepaying householders were not allowed to participate. The latter again sought admission to the freedom at the ensuing court leet but were thwarted by the Buller oligarchy, supposedly in defiance of a king’s bench ruling. Accusations of corrupt trafficking in local patronage appeared in the West Briton, which espoused and publicized the independents’ cause.7 The rejection by king’s bench of the claims of the inhabitant ratepayers of West Looe in 1825 was a blow to their counterparts across the river, but it was thought that the right of election was almost certain to be tested by an appeal to the Commons at the next general election.8

Three months before that event, in March 1826, Watson Taylor vacated for Lord Perceval, the son of the 4th earl of Egmont, who came in without disturbance. At the general election Buller Elphinstone stood himself, with William Lascelles, a younger son of the 2nd earl of Harewood and Tory Member for Northallerton in the 1820 Parliament. The independents appealed to the London attorney and election broker William Vizard, who, as the Whig 2nd earl of Carnarvon told his son Lord Porchester*, ‘offered to put two persons in nomination for them, but free from any pledge to prosecute the petition unless he was satisfied the case was a good one’; Carnarvon accepted for Porchester on these terms. Robert Scarlett, a barrister and son of the moderate Whig Member for Peterborough, also agreed to stand. In the event, Buller Elphinstone and Lascelles were returned by the votes of 24 freemen, the mayor having rejected the votes tendered for their opponents by 41 inhabitant householders.9 Although Scarlett did ‘not think well of the ... case’, he and Porchester eventually petitioned the Commons against the return, 4 Dec. 1826, alleging the rejection of good votes for themselves and the admission of invalid ones for the sitting Members. As the case turned on the right of election the committee, appointed on 15 Mar. 1827, took submissions. They rejected the petitioners’ claim that it was in the inhabitant householders, accepted the defendants’ assertion that it was ‘in the mayor and burgesses ... being members of the corporation’, and accordingly confirmed Buller Elphinstone and Lascelles in their seats.10

The freemen and inhabitants petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Small Notes Act, 3 June 1828.11 Soon afterwards Buller Elphinstone, disillusioned with his inability to procure official employment, decided to sell his borough interest.12 He remained Member long enough to vote with Lascelles for the Wellington ministry’s Catholic emancipation bill, although the freemen and inhabitants petitioned against it, 24 Mar. 1829.13 Several weeks later he vacated his seat for Henry Hope, the eldest son of the wealthy art connoisseur, collector and writer Thomas Hope of The Deepdene, Surrey, to whom he had conveyed Trenant Park and the electoral interest.14 There was no opposition to Hope’s re-election following his appointment to the royal household in April 1830; the ‘populace were gratified with a plentiful supply of beer and cider’.15 At the general election that summer the Hopes nominated Thomas Kemmis, an army officer and an Eton contemporary of Henry, as the latter’s colleague.

The inhabitants of both Looes sent an anti-slavery petition to the Commons, 17 Dec. 1830.16 On 18 Mar. 1831 the mayor and freemen of East Looe petitioned the House against the Grey ministry’s reform bill, which proposed to disfranchise the borough. Both Members opposed the bill, although the inhabitant householders petitioned in its favour, 21 Apr. 1831.17 They were powerless to prevent the return of Hope, who had succeeded to his father’s property in February, and Kemmis at the ensuing general election. When the borough’s extinction under the reintroduced reform bill was formally proposed, 22 July, Davies Gilbert, Member for Bodmin, suggested, with Hope’s approval, the amalgamation of the Looes to return one Member, but ministers would not hear of it. The new criteria adopted in the revised bill of December 1831 confirmed East Looe’s fate, as it contained 167 houses and paid £79 in assessed taxes, placing it eighteenth in the list of the smallest English boroughs. It was therefore absorbed into the Eastern division of Cornwall. The passage of the Reform Act was celebrated with ‘a grand procession, headed by the oldest reformer in the place, Mr. Hicks, who is upwards of 80’, and a dinner for 150 people presided over by Captain Nicholas.18

Authors: Howard Spencer / David R. Fisher


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 546.
  • 2. Ibid. (1835), xxiii. 672.
  • 3. S. Drew, Hist. Cornw. (1824), ii. 452, 454; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 150; T. Bond, Sketches of E. and W. Looe, intro. and pp. 1, 9, 31, 79, 96, 115.
  • 4. PP (1830-1), x. 83; (1831-2), xxxvi. 40-41, 546; (1835), xxiii. 669-72; Cornw. RO DD/X155/172, 174.
  • 5. West Briton, 10 Mar. 1820; Add. 38283, f. 228.
  • 6. West Briton, 26 Sept., 3-24 Oct., 7 Nov., 5, 19 Dec.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 4 Oct., 6 Dec. 1823.
  • 7. West Briton, 1, 15 Oct., 5, 19, 26 Nov. 1824.
  • 8. Ibid. 18 Feb., 8 July 1825.
  • 9. Hants RO, Carnarvon mss 75M91/E4/54; West Briton, 16 June 1826.
  • 10. Carnarvon mss E4/56; Cornw. RO DD/X155/171; CJ, lxxxii. 60, 119, 319, 321-2, 344; West Briton, 15 Dec. 1826.
  • 11. CJ, lxxxiii. 392.
  • 12. Add. 40397, f. 162; Arbuthnot Corresp. 116.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxiv. 165.
  • 14. West Briton, 11 Sept. 1829; The Times, 8 Aug. 1831; Wellington mss WP1/1107/2; H.W. and I. Law, Bk. of the Beresford Hopes, 63-64.
  • 15. West Briton, 16 Apr. 1830.
  • 16. CJ, lxxxvi. 183.
  • 17. Ibid. 403, 416.
  • 18. West Briton, 15 June 1832.