Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the inhabitants paying scot and lot
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
at least 241 in 1705
|3 Mar. 1690||Thomas Coningsby|
|John Dutton Colt|
|24 Oct. 1695||Thomas Coningsby, Baron Coningsby [I]|
|John Dutton Colt|
|29 July 1698||Thomas Coningsby, Baron Coningsby [I]|
|8 Jan. 1701||Thomas Coningsby, Baron Coningsby [I]|
|John Dutton Colt||145|
|Harley vice Colt, on petition, 3 Apr. 1701|
|27 Nov. 1701||Thomas Coningsby, Baron Coningsby [I]|
|John Dutton Colt|
|21 July 1702||Thomas Coningsby, Baron Coningsby [I]|
|14 May 1705||Thomas Coningsby, Baron Coningsby [I]||296|
|John Dutton Colt||501|
|7 May 1708||Thomas Coningsby, Baron Coningsby [I]|
|7 Oct. 1710||Edward Harley|
|4 Sept. 1713||Edward Harley||219|
|John Dutton Colt||88|
As in other boroughs with a scot-and-lot or inhabitant franchise, the electorate in Leominster included numbers of the needy and vulnerable, and contests were usually followed by accusations of bribery and intimidation. A free-for-all was avoided, however, because of the degree of control exercised over voters and voting by the bailiff, magistrates and municipal officers, a powerful local oligarchy alternately engaged in the service of one or other of the principal landowners of the neighbourhood. In turn, the presence of these entrenched proprietory interests deterred carpet-baggers, so that the electoral history of the borough in this period can be told in terms of the competition between three men: Thomas (Lord) Coningsby, the lord of the manor; John Dutton Colt, who owned Dutton House in the town; and the Harleys, whose estate at Brampton Bryan was also not far away. So strong was Coningsby’s position that until 1708 he was guaranteed the place as senior Member. Colt and Edward Harley came in due course to dispute the second seat, but in 1690 Coningsby’s father-in-law, Ferdinando Gorges, was also a candidate, with the result that all three interests were embroiled. It is possible that these difficulties were not of Coningsby’s making, and that Gorges, the only Tory among the principals, had imposed his candidature on his son-in-law, for the two did not enjoy the happiest of relationships and Coningsby, who always stood somewhat aloof from the electoral in-fighting at Leominster, did not work actively for Gorges’ return or even formally join with him. Instead, he sought to prevent a conjunction between the other two major interests. Colt had already put up, and Robert Harley* was contemplating a challenge. Coningsby offered Harley a proposition: in return for Harley’s agreement to ‘give no disturbance at Leominster but leave Mr Colt and Mr Gorges to try it out’ he would ‘faithfully engage’ to ‘stand by’ Harley ‘next time’. It was Harley’s opinion that Coningsby ‘thought his father[-in-law] would lose it’. In this case, given that Coningsby was sure of one seat, Harley judged that the only result of his perseverance would be to ‘fling out’ Colt, at that time a political ally. He therefore withdrew. Some of his family’s agents and supporters still hoped to bring in his younger brother Edward instead, and may have canvassed for him. Certainly Edward’s name was ‘used’ and Coningsby, who was playing a double game in the county election, exploited the fact to give himself a pretext for denying his interest to the Harleys’ father, Sir Edward*, in his candidature for knight of the shire. He told Sir Edward Harley he had been sorely provoked by ‘the setting up of your son by people who I know to be so entirely your servants that without your leave they would never have attempted it, and that in downright opposition to me, and, as it was told me, in order to weaken my interest’. No one else took this claim seriously. Coningsby’s return was secured, and the second place, a straight fight between Colt and Gorges, went to the former, as Robert Harley had predicted. Gorges petitioned on 24 Mar. 1690, concentrating on the ‘irregular practices’ of the bailiff (and returning officer), Edward Bangham, but the petition was not heard during the first session of the 1690 Parliament, and Gorges did not seek to reintroduce it.4
The 1695 election saw the unopposed return of the two outgoing Members, but both had suffered in the esteem of the townsmen. Local manufacturers’ resentment at the effects of the leather duty focused on their own parliamentary representatives who had supported it, and neither Colt nor Coningsby seems to have troubled to correspond with the corporation, a neglect which aggravated discontent. In the meantime, Edward Harley was building up his interest in the borough. Chosen as recorder in 1691 or 1692, he stepped into the breach left by Colt and Coningsby and made sure, by means of his father and brother, both of them MPs, that copies of the Votes were sent down to Leominster, and that the case against the continuance of the leather tax was put in the Commons. The townsmen, he reported, were ‘very sensible’ of this ‘kindness’. Coningsby’s standing with the corporation had fallen so low that when the high stewardship fell vacant in 1696 Sir Herbert Croft, 1st Bt.*, was preferred to him for the honour. ‘The Lord Coningsby’s man came with a letter from his master’, Robert Harley was informed, ‘which was to offer his service to them, but they would not accept his offer except on their terms, viz. that he should not put any in office belonging to him but by their approbation.’ This rebuff was not, however, as disastrous to Coningsby as at first sight it may have appeared. It did not, for one thing, signal the arrival of Croft as a power on the political scene in Leominster. A man ‘who never did or will do any good for our town’, in the words of one elector, he had been chosen by the corporation ‘to serve their private ends’ and made no impression whatsoever on the electoral politics of the borough. Nor in the long run did Coningsby’s rejection affect his own standing with the voters, despite some initial ‘slights’ when he tested opinion in 1697, for he was again accorded first place in the general election the following year. Three other candidates appeared: Colt, Harley and Samuel Pytts*, the nearest thing to an ‘outsider’ in that although he was a Herefordshire squire his estate lay at the other end of the county. Colt was the first to back down, ‘resigning his interest’ to Harley and failing in a feeble attempt to extort from his successor ‘a promise not to oppose him another time’. Pytts, who had been campaigning longer than Colt, and who as a Tory may have hoped to capitalize on religious tensions in a town where there were substantial Dissenting communities, eventually followed suit, so that no opposition was given at the poll.5
Colt’s counter-attack was based on the strength of his ‘party in the magistracy’, which by 1700 had been reconstructed and had taken control of the government of the borough. Led by the bailiff in 1690, Edward Bangham, who had supported Harley in 1698 but had now been won back and sat with Colt on the commission of the peace in the town, this faction controlled the office of bailiff through the Baptist James Caswall, likewise a recent recruit since he had occupied the post in 1698. Equally important to the management of elections was the adherence of the town clerk, Thomas Price (bailiff in 1699), and Thomas Bubb, the overseer of the poor. In May 1700 Harley reported that Colt’s supporters ‘stick at nothing to serve their designs’, and some idea of the means by which they secured votes for their patron may be gleaned from the evidence subsequently marshalled by Harley in support of his petition against Colt’s election in January 1701. Besides the customary purchasing of votes, at prices ranging from £1 to £8, numerous abuses of magisterial authority were cited: alehouse-keepers threatened with the revocation of their licences; a blacksmith told that unless he polled for Colt ‘he should not keep his smith’s shop in the place where he . . . lives’; tenants under the corporation frightened with talk of eviction; servants of the corporation ordered to vote on pain of dismissal; taxpayers promised exemption, especially from the window duty and the ‘church and poor’ rate. In addition, the compilation of the list of those liable to pay the poor rate, effectively the register of those entitled to vote, was in the hands of Colt’s ‘friends’, notably Thomas Bubb. With such a firm grip on municipal power, so much so that it was being said in Leominster that Colt was ‘put up by the magistrates’, and with a determination to return Colt at all costs, Caswall and his colleagues were full of confidence long before the election took place. They seem also to have intimidated Coningsby, who professed himself unable to act when the Harleys appealed to him for assistance. Suggestions that his own position was at risk, and insinuations by Robert Harley that a debt of honour arising from the 1690 election had not been met, failed to move Coningsby. ‘I . . . am only sorry’, he told Robert Harley, ‘that it’s put altogether out of my power to show in that place the service I have for anyone of your name . . . but you know my circumstances in that affair.’ It is possible that much of this regret may have been dissembled. Coningsby and Colt were co-operating at this time in the county and in the borough of Weobley, and the complications of the county election in particular would have strained relations between Coningsby and the Harleys. At the poll Edward Harley did indeed receive the ‘hard usage’ he and his friends had expected, but his achievement in getting within 30 votes of Colt shows the strength of his interest in the borough, and his petition on 13 Feb. 1701 was supported by another on the 17th from ‘divers inhabitants’ of Leominster against Colt’s return. Harley’s case rested on the misdeeds of the ‘magistrates’: of the 90 or so voters he sought to strike from Colt’s total only 19 were allegedly unqualified because in receipt of alms; the remainder were said to have been unduly influenced by bribes, threats and, in most cases (over 50), by the promise of exemption from the window tax. The reply was feeble enough, disputing some testimony and making counter-accusations of bribery, though one interesting sidelight emerged with the evidence that one of Harley’s supporters had declared, in an outburst of sectarian passion, ‘now is the time to pull down the surplice and common prayer’. Another Harleyite had said that, whatever the result at the poll, Harley would carry his petition in Parliament ‘for he was better beloved than Mr Colt’; and so it proved. Moreover, besides unseating Colt, the Commons took exception to the behaviour of ‘John Bubb’, presumably Thomas the overseer of the poor, in refusing to furnish the elections committee with a copy of the ‘levy’ of the poor rate, and, on a motion of Henry Gorges (Ferdinando’s son, and Lord Coningsby’s brother-in-law), committed him to custody. The effect of the parliamentary decision and in particular the commitment of Bubb, who had apparently been disowned by his patron, ‘alarmed’ the pro-Colt faction in Leominster. They accepted with alacrity a peace settlement put forward by Harley and negotiated by the former chief agents of the rival candidates, Caswall and Caleb Powell (a leading Presbyterian in the town), who thereafter worked together to manage elections in the Harley interest. Three new ‘members’ were brought into the corporation as capital burgesses (of whom there were 25 altogether), and the bailiff’s place for the ensuing year was settled on Israel Tompkins, another follower of Colt (and a Presbyterian) who had presumably been brought across to the Harley camp. Colt’s formidable ‘party’ had now been taken over by his opponent, and their ‘industry’ in the cause of their new master was soon evident in his return, with Coningsby, at the second general election of 1701. Colt’s petition on 3 Jan. 1702 claimed that ‘menaces and other unlawful practices’ had been used against him, and, to complete the irony, that the bailiff had favoured his opponent. The petition remained unheard.6
Colt evidently did not have the stomach to contest the 1702 election, when there was no opposition to the outgoing Members. The appointment in that year of two of Harley’s supporters in Leominster as local receivers of the land tax, James Caswall for Monmouthshire and Samuel Clark for Herefordshire, seems to have clinched the Harleys’ acquisition of the commanding heights of the corporation and magistracy. Together with Caleb Powell and Thomas Price, Caswall and Clark formed a quadrumvirate to manage elections, municipal and parliamentary, in the Harleys’ interest. Coningsby was to complain bitterly of this many years later, when his position had finally been undermined, but at first it was Colt who lost out, defeated again in 1705 (when Caleb Powell was bailiff) and on this occasion by a wide margin. The challenge in 1708 came not from a dispirited Colt but instead from another local gentleman, Farley Osborne, whose seat at Stoke Prior was only two miles outside the town. ‘Treating very liberally’, Osborne made some headway, but was eventually confounded by the governing party in the corporation, just as Colt had been before him. Caswall, a bailiff, and his colleagues, allegedly ‘behaved themselves in so violent a manner’ towards Osborne’s voters as to discourage them from polling, but their simplest and most effective tactic was to manipulate electoral qualification through a reassessment of the poor rate, calculated ‘for Harley’s service’. It may be significant that when Osborne petitioned he confined himself to challenging the election of Harley and accepted the legality of Coningsby’s return in his accustomed first place. The Harleys believed that Henry Gorges, Coningsby’s brother-in-law, had ‘stirred up’ the opposition, in connexion with Gorges’ own efforts to become knight of the shire, and this would seem to be confirmed by the fact that Osborne’s petition was withdrawn as part of a general settlement of electoral disputes in the county. Osborne did not figure again in Leominster elections, so far as is known. When Coningsby retired in 1710 his replacement was not Osborne but a townsman, Edward Bangham, possibly a son of the earlier Edward Bangham who had been a mainstay of Colt’s faction in 1701. This Bangham was on good terms with the Harleys, and may well have been their nominee. As for Coningsby, he was ‘fawning’ on the Harleys, as they themselves (somewhat suspiciously) put it. To begin with it did not look as if anyone would contest the return of Edward Harley and his new partner, but late in the day some opposition did arise, prompted by the more radical of the local Dissenters, who had doubtless taken exception to the Harleys, former Presbyterians, assuming the mantle of defenders of the Church along with their conversion from old Whiggism to new Toryism. The ‘Quakers and Anabaptists [probably General Baptists]’ were, with the exception of the bailiff, James Caswall, ‘generally against’ Harley; ‘the other Dissenters’ to a man ‘for him’. The name of their candidate or candidates is not given, but one of them may well have been Colt, who sprang a surprise on the day of the election itself with a dramatic gesture. According to Caswall, ‘after the Queen’s writ and the sheriff’s mandate were read’, Colt
proposed the reading of an Act of Parliament. He was answered that the [?bar] was not judge thereof, therefore I would not consent to have it read; it was the Act in relation to expenses. He went off the bench, telling us he would not poll one man to expose his friends to double taxes, and so left the court. Upon this the court sat about an hour, and three proclamations and no voice heard in the court but all harmony and agreement, with repeated acclamations, ‘Harley and Bangham’, Mr Colt not so much as telling us he stood candidate, or any other, and thus ended our election, with all the appearance of a general satisfaction.
In a further obscure reference to the possibility of a contest having been intended, he added, ‘they talk as if some few of the candidates will petition, but they must say something, although I am sure the people never gave their voices with more freedom’. Whoever these prospective ‘candidates’ had been, they had clearly not pursued their ambitions to a poll.7
Bangham’s withdrawal in 1713 would suggest that he was no more than a stop-gap, whose usefulness terminated when the Harleys found an alternative candidate to their liking. This candidate was none other than Henry Gorges, who had made his peace with them and stood with Edward Harley on a Tory, pro-ministerial platform. The younger Bangham was now bailiff, and reported in August that Harley was ‘perfectly safe . . . the contest lies between Mr Gorges and Mr Colt’. Colt had pinned his hopes on the strength of partisan, and especially denominational, loyalties. Standing as a Whig, his candidature was ‘carried by’ the ‘Dissenters, both in town and neighbourhood’, and he boasted that he would have over 70 single votes at the poll. In fact he enjoyed the support of just 20 plumpers. On the other side the partnership of Harley and Gorges seems to have worked out well: Harley polled only 33 votes more than Gorges, of which a mere five were plumpers. Colt petitioned against them both on 3 Mar. 1714, but, not surprisingly perhaps, in view of the Harleys’ primacy in national politics and the Tory majority in the Commons, withdrew his petition on 16 Apr. Coningsby took no part in this election. However, in December 1714 he signalled an outbreak of hostilities against the Harley interest with a threatening letter to Caleb Powell, Edward Harley’s principal agent and currently the bailiff of the borough, in which he claimed to have evidence that Harley had abused his official powers as auditor of the exchequer since 1710 to advance his interests in Leominster. Coningsby thus took over from Colt as the principal adversary of the Harleys in the constituency.8
Author: D. W. Hayton
- 1. London Post, 21 May 1705; Post Man, 17–19 May 1705.
- 2. HMC Portland, v. 327; Post Boy, 5–8 Sept. 1713.
- 3. Bodl. Willis 51, f. 30.
- 4. W. R. Williams, Parl. Hist. Herefs. 135; G.F. Townsend, Leominster, 149, 295; Add. 70014, ff. 284, 287; 70252, James Powle to Robert Harley, 23 Feb. 1689[–90]; 70064, Coningsby to Sir Edward Harley, 6 Mar. [?1690]; HMC Portland, iii. 445–6.
- 5. Add. 70017, f. 234; 70118, Edward to Sir Edward Harley, 19 Jan. 1693[–4]; 70127, Sir Edward to [Robert Harley], 2 Sept. 1691; 70256, H. Seward to [same], 19 July 1696; 70019, f. 31; 70117, Abigail to Sir Edward Harley, 26 Apr. 1698; 70114, Thomas Foley II* to same, 16 July 1698; Townsend, 292; CJ, xii. 18, 78; HMC Portland, iii. 562; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 47/2, James Vernon I* to the Duke of Shrewsbury, 3 May 1698; Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 24, f. 331.
- 6. Add. 70236, Edward to Robert Harley, 3 May 1700; 70278, evidence for Leominster election case [c.Mar. 1701]; 70064, Robert Harley to Coningsby, 26 Dec. 1700; 70019, f. 309; 70020, ff. 35–36; 70118, Edward to Sir Edward Harley, 22 Apr. 1701; 70218, Cyriac Cornewall to [Robert Harley], 14 Nov. 1701; Townsend, 295; Thynne pprs. 25, ff. 55–56; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 26(2), James Brydges’ diary, 8 Jan. 1701; Cocks Diary, 98–99; J. Price, Hist. and Top. Acct. of Leominster, 134–5.
- 7. Cal. Treas. Bks. xvii. 199; Add. 70319–22, Leominster petition [c.1716]; 70254, Robert Harley to Robert Price*, 27 May 1708; 70396, William Thomas to [Edward Harley], 5 Mar. 1708–9; 70240, Thomas to Robert Harley, 24 Sept. 1710; 70226, Thomas Foley II to same, 30 Sept. 1710; 70216, James Caswall to same, 9 Oct. 1710; Townsend, 295; HMC Portland, iv. 483, 607; vii. 18; NLW, Ottley mss 2587, Charles Baldwyn to Adam Ottley, 10 Oct. 1710; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 264–5; Harley mss at Brampton Bryan, Robert to [Edward Harley], 23 Sept. 1710; Mins. of Gen. Assembly of Gen. Baptist Churches in Eng. ed. Whitley, i. p.lix.
- 8. Add. 70236, Thomas Foley II to Robert Harley, 19 Aug. 1713; 70084, Coningsby to the bailiff of Leominster, 11 Dec. 1714; HMC Portland, v. 327; Townsend, 295.