Plympton Erle


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:

54 in 18311


762 (1821); 1,015 (1831)2


8 Mar. 1820Ranald George MACDONALD
 Alexander BOSWELL
17 Feb. 1821William Gill PAXTON vice Boswell, vacated his seat 
11 Mar. 1824John Henry NORTH vice Macdonald, vacated his seat
24 June 1824NORTH re-elected after appointment as KC
10 June 1826Hon. George EDGCUMBE
 Gibbs Crawfurd ANTROBUS
16 Dec. 1826Sir Charles WETHERELL vice Edgcumbe, vacated his seat
9 Feb. 1828WETHERELL re-elected after appointment to office
2 Aug. 1830Ernest Augustus EDGCUMBE, Visct. Valletort
23 Dec. 1830Sir Compton DOMVILE, bt. vice Valletort, vacated his seat
30 Apr. 1831Sir Compton DOMVILE, bt.

Main Article

Plympton Erle, a small stannery and market town situated in a valley close to the River Plym, about five miles north-east of Plymouth, consisted of ‘four small streets, with a few respectable dwellings in the suburbs’. Its trades, such as tanning, brewing, wool combing and hat making, had all died out by 1800 and the weekly market was in decline, leaving nothing to distinguish the town economically.3 The borough comprised the parish of Plympton St. Maurice and a small area of the large adjoining rural parish of Plympton St. Mary, ‘to the extent of parts of the villages of Ridgway and Underwood and fields adjacent, and an arm of the sea’. Local power was exercised by the corporation, which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, eight other common councilmen and an indefinite number of freemen, from whom the common councilmen were selected; all held their offices for life. The franchise was vested in the freemen, who were created by the common council and were mostly ‘gentlemen of rank and influence residing in Devon and Cornwall’. It was asserted in 1830 that only five of them lived in the borough. In 1802-4 an attempt was made to claim an hereditary right of freedom for freemen’s sons, but nothing came of this.4 The nomination to the seats was in the hands of two Tory patrons, Paul Treby of Goodamoor, the principal landowner, and Richard Edgcumbe†, 2nd earl of Mount Edgcumbe, the recorder, who subsidized the corporation and was accustomed to nominating two common councilmen from whom the mayor was elected. Both patrons sold their seats and the going rate was apparently £1,000 per annum. Of the Members returned in this period, Boswell, Paxton and Antrobus were clients of Treby, while MacDonald, North, Wetherell and Domvile were nominated by Mount Edgcumbe, who also used his sons, Edgcumbe and Valletort, as stop gaps. Lavish celebration dinners were the most notable feature of Plympton Erle elections, and a radical newspaper condemned the borough as ‘the very acme of humbug upon the title of representation of the people’. Election accounts for 1830 and 1831 show that the candidates together paid the town clerk’s ‘customary ... retainer’ of £210 and about £115 for dinners, the butcher’s bill (which included an allowance of beef for the poor) and other expenses.5

The inhabitants sent an anti-Catholic petition to the Commons, 26 Feb. 1827,6 and the Members, Antrobus and the Ultra Tory Wetherell, the attorney-general, opposed the Wellington ministry’s emancipation bill in 1829. According to the borough’s historian, in 1830 three sons of a deceased freeman named Wolrige claimed the right to their freedom, basing this on an interpretation of a by-law of 1623, but ‘the court and the jury refused to interfere with the existing state of things’, and though ‘a mandamus was ... applied for, no further proceedings followed’.7 On 26 Feb. 1831 Joseph Hume presented a petition to the Commons on behalf of the freeholders, leaseholders and inhabitants, who requested ‘an extension of the franchise and a general reform, as [we] do not consider [ourselves] at present properly represented’.8 However, the Grey ministry’s reform bill, which proposed to disfranchise Plympton Erle, caused local enthusiasm to evaporate, and the anti-reformers Domvile and Antrobus were returned without protest at the general election in April.9 The corporation and inhabitants petitioned the Commons against the reintroduced bill’s passage in its present form, 20 July.10 Two days later Valletort took up the borough’s case, arguing that as it included one parish and part of another the boundary should be extended to cover the whole of Plympton St. Mary, thus creating a ‘respectable constituency’ of over 2,000 inhabitants which could be transferred to schedule B. He did not expect ministers to agree with him, but sought to expose the ‘utter absurdity of this bill’. Lord John Russell replied that the borough clearly consisted of one parish and its vicinity only, and he saw no grounds for making an exception to the rule. Plympton Erle ‘exhibited no testimony of public rejoicing’ on William IV’s coronation day in September, and when news arrived the following month of the Lords’ rejection of the reform bill the church bells were rung ‘to announce the escape of the borough from schedule A!’11 The new criteria applied in the revised bill of December 1831 confirmed Plympton Erle’s fate, as it contained 182 houses and paid £322 in assessed taxes, placing it 40th in the list of the smallest English boroughs. Commissioners sent to investigate its boundaries found them to be ‘clearly defined’ and they dismissed the statement made by the mayor, Samuel Forster, in an official return, that ‘a large part of the parish of St. Mary’ was within the borough.12 Russell rejected criticism that Plympton Erle had been harshly treated, 23 Feb. 1832, maintaining that he had followed the commissioners’ recommendation, and the borough was consequently absorbed into the Southern division of Devon. With its parliamentary representation gone Plympton Erle held no further interest for Mount Edgcumbe, who resigned as recorder in 1833 and withdrew financial support from the corporation, which was dissolved in 1859.13

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 567.
  • 2. Ibid. (1830-1), x. 144; (1831-2), xxxvii. 161-3. The figure for 1821 relates to Plympton St. Maurice, whose population in 1831 was 804.
  • 3. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 255; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 552-4; J.B. Rowe, Hist. Plympton, 383-8; W. Hoskins, Devon, 461-2.
  • 4. PP (1830-1), x. 93; (1835), xxiii. 597-602; Rowe, 152-7, 196-8; Western Times, 25 Dec. 1830.
  • 5. PP (1835), xxiii. 600-1; Rowe, 202-4; Farington Diary, x. 3581, 3583; Devon RO, Sidmouth mss, Boswell to Sidmouth, 30 Nov. 1820; Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lonsdale, 27 July 1830; Cornw. RO, Mount Edgcumbe mss DD/ME/2957-9, election accts.; Western Times, 20 Nov. 1830.
  • 6. CJ, lxxxii. 230.
  • 7. Rowe, 197-8.
  • 8. R. Devonport Telegraph, 5 Feb. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 310.
  • 9. R. Devonport Telegraph, 30 Apr., 7 May 1831.
  • 10. CJ, lxxxvi. 678.
  • 11. R. Devonport Telegraph, 10 Sept.; Plymouth Jnl. 13 Oct. 1831.
  • 12. PP (1831), xvi. 263; (1831-2), xxxvii. 161.
  • 13. Rowe, 171-4.