Double Member Borough

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the corporation

Number of voters:



18 Apr. 1754Lord George Bentinck 
 Brice Fisher 
21 Mar. 1759Thomas Conolly vice Bentinck, deceased 
25 Mar. 1761Thomas Conolly 
 John Tylney, Earl Tylney 
17 Mar. 1768Arthur Chichester, Earl of Donegall11
 Thomas Howard11
 Sir William Mayne2
 Sir Robert Fletcher2
8 Oct. 1774Charles James Fox 
 William Strahan 
9 Sept. 1780George Legge, Visct. Lewisham 
 Arthur Hill, Visct. Fairford 
28 Nov. 1780John Calvert vice Lewisham, chose to sit for Staffordshire 
2 Apr. 1784Peniston Lamb, Visct. Melbourne 
 James Maitland, Visct. Maitland 
1 Feb. 1790Paul Benfield vice Maitland, become a peer of Scotland 

Main Article

Malmesbury was one of the smallest corporation boroughs in the country, yet very difficult to control. The chief interest was in the high steward, elected annually by the corporation; and the borough was usually managed by his deputy. There was a regular scale of payments to the burgesses.

In 1751 Henry Fox was elected high steward, apparently by amicable arrangement with his predecessor Sir John Rushout; and William Earle continued as deputy. The King advanced £1,000 from the secret service account towards the election expenses,1 and at the general election of 1754 Fox accepted Government candidates at Malmesbury.

The cost of running the borough at this time is not easy to ascertain. In a paper of 20 Mar. 1754 Newcastle wrote:2 ‘Lord George Bentinck £1,500. £1,000 was to be given [from the secret service account] and Mr. Fisher was to pay the rest.’ Presumably most, if not all of this, went to the corporation. In 1757, when Bentinck’s death was expected, the burgesses ‘revolted’ and demanded a payment of £1,000. Fox pacified them by a loan of £50 each, ‘which they are to repay at the election and promise to vote for Mr. Fox’s friend’. He wrote to Devonshire, 4 Mar. 1759, about Conolly’s election: ‘The expense will be upwards of £500, which is too much.’ In fact it seems to have been a good deal more: Conolly paid Fox over £3,600 for his two elections at Malmesbury. Tylney’s election in 1761 cost £2,000, about the average price of a seat at that time.3

About 1760 Lord Suffolk, whose principal estate was at Charlton, two miles from Malmesbury, began to interfere in the borough. Fox hoped for a compromise, and sent a proposal to Suffolk:4

If an instrument can be formed legally to bind the thirteen burgesses for seven years which is now under the consideration of Mr. [Fletcher] Norton.

It is proposed,£
To give each £30 p.a.390
There must be 2 feasts, suppose15

£405 p.a.

No new burgess to be chose but by the high steward’s or his deputy Mr. Earle’s recommendation, nor till he shall have signed and sealed the above mentioned bond or contract.

It is hoped by this to prevent the burgesses from being necessitous; to make what each man receives proportionable to the time he serves; and to put an end to those cabals and strugglings in the choice of new burgesses, which have given Mr. Earle so much trouble and through which he has with great difficulty, by his honesty, spirit, ability, and attention carried through this election.

Mr. Fox wishes he had a better thing to offer Lord Suffolk, but if his Lordship approves of this or can form a better scheme Mr. Fox will be proud to go hand in hand with his Lordship at Malmesbury in the choice of burgesses and members for that place, and hope his son may have the honour to do so after him.

Suffolk rejected this proposal, and continued his intrigues in the corporation. Elected high steward in 1762, he dismissed Earle and appointed as his deputy Edmund Wilkins, a Malmesbury apothecary. The struggle for control continued. In 1764 Suffolk secured Earle's dismissal from his office of receiver-general of land tax5 for North Wiltshire, and had Wilkins appointed in his place; but by October 1765 Holland (as Fox now was) obtained Earle's reinstatement. At the general election of 1768 the Suffolk party was in the ascendant; and Mayne and Fletcher, the defeated candidates, were adventurers on a forlorn enterprise. It is doubtful whether Holland was involved.

But he had not abandoned Malmesbury. The details of the revolution of 1768-9 are not known, but so much is clear: Wilkins deserted Suffolk, was elected high steward in September 1768, and in 1769 gave way to Charles James Fox and resumed his old place of deputy. Between 1769 and 1773 Holland paid over £3,000 on account of Malmesbury; but Wilkins remained in effective control of the borough. He retained ten of the burgesses at £30 per annum, and as a guarantee of their loyalty held a bond from each of them of £500. One seat in 1774, and both in 1780, were sold to Government. On Earle's death in 1774 Wilkins had succeeded him as receiver for North Wiltshire, and in North's extant secret service accounts (from 1779 to 1782) appears as receiving an annual subsidy of from Government of £720.

In December 1783 Robinson counted Malmesbury as a borough under Government influence, and wrote about it:

This borough was in proper hands that gave no trouble but received the recommendations made. It is not known with certainty how it exactly stands in this respect now, but it is apprehended it may be revived.

But Wilkins returned two members of the Opposition: he ‘betrayed us most flagrantly’, wrote Rose to Robinson, 27 Mar. 1784.6 Wilkins soon came round again, and at the by-election of 1789 accepted a candidate recommended by Pitt.

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Namier, Structure, 444-5.
  • 2. Add. 32995, f. 105.
  • 3. Fox to Devonshire, 1 June 1758, Devonshire mss; Add. 17493, f. 83; Sutherland Binney, ‘Henry Fox as Paymaster-General of the Forces’, EHR, 1955, pp. 251-2.
  • 4. ‘Paper delivered to Lord Suffolk by Mr. Fox in 1760’, Suffolk mss, Wilts. RO.
  • 5. For the political significance of this office see TIVERTON constituency.
  • 6. Laprade, 93, 118.