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

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the freemen and inhabitant householders

Number of voters:

about 1,200


(1801): 3,948


 John Payne574
17 July 1815 HON. WILLIAM WALDEGRAVE vice Whitbread, deceased 

Main Article

The influence of the Russell family at Bedford, overpowered by Sir Robert Bernard and the corporation in 1769, had only been strong enough, since the death of John, 4th Duke of Bedford in 1771, when Bernard became recorder, to supply reinforcement to the interest established by Samuel Whitbread I*, the wealthy brewer, who became a staunch supporter of Pitt. On Bernard’s death in January 1789 Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford, who had come of age in 1786, was elected recorder in his place, and in that and the following year some 220 freemen were created in the Woburn interest. Early in 1789 John Payne, illegitimate son of Sir Gillies Payne of Tempsford and a supporter of government, ‘offered his services to the mayor’. He received no encouragement, but nevertheless began to ‘conciliate the friendship of the lower class of freemen by giving away beef etc.’. Whitbread’s colleague William Colhoun, a West India planter and Norfolk squire, who had been returned as a professed ministerialist with the support of Bernard and the corporation in 1784, but had attached himself to Fox in the House, seems to have enjoyed the support of the Bedford interest from the moment the recordership changed hands. He and the corporation, ‘with the knowledge and concurrence’ of the duke, asked William Lee Antonie of Colworth, a fellow Whig, to consider standing, but he declined, having a seat for Great Marlow in prospect. In 1807 Colhoun boasted that ‘at seven thousand pounds expense, he recovered and reinstated the corporation of Bedford to his late ever to be lamented friend’, the 5th Duke; and when he stood in 1790 he claimed to have ‘the support of the corporation and Bedford family’.1 It appears, however, that he additionally insured his good standing with the corporation by paying off on their behalf in June 1789 the sum of £1,274, which represented the principal and interest of a mortgage loan of £950 advanced by Bernard in 1780 and on which no interest had been paid during Bernard’s life. None was thereafter paid to Colhoun while he remained Member for Bedford. It is not clear whether the duke was aware of the transaction, which was unearthed by the municipal corporations commissioners in 1833. As recorder, he ought to have known about it, but the fact that it went unrecorded in the corporation accounts suggests that he may have been deliberately kept in ignorance. In 1799 Colhoun assigned the security to one Monkhouse, who demanded payment in 1803. The corporation fought the claim for ten years until they were compelled to pay over £2,500 in redemption. The offer of the 6th Duke of Bedford and the younger Samuel Whitbread to share the cost was declined and the money was raised by the sale of lands and by general economies.2

In 1790 Payne solicited the support of the ‘independent’ interest. The elder Whitbread initially offered himself for re-election, but the day before polling began made way, at the cost of some domestic unpleasantness, for his Foxite son, who had for some time been set on taking over the seat. Whitbread stood professedly on his ‘father’s interest alone without any junction whatever with either of the other candidates’, but by the close of the poll he and Colhoun were running in harness. The second votes which Whitbread received from Colhoun’s supporters, particularly among the London outvoters, appear to have been crucial to his narrow victory over Payne, who polled 251 plumpers to Whitbread’s 75 and was overwhelmingly preferred by the Huntingdonshire outvoters, most of whom had been created by the Bernard party 20 years previously. Payne petitioned against Whitbread’s return in December 1790 on the ground that he was guilty of bribery and had received illegal votes. Fears that, with the expected ministerial backing, the outcome might be a declaration of a void election, prompted the admission in 1791 of 129 new freemen, including 30 tenants of Earl Fitzwilliam from Higham Ferrers, ‘to strengthen the Bedford interest’, but the petition was rejected when it was investigated in March 1792.3

The events of these years became the subject of controversy at Bedford in 1830, when the Woburn nominee was narrowly beaten by a country gentleman standing on the ‘independent’ interest, and again when the corporations commissioners held their inquiry. The dispute turned on the extent of the 5th Duke of Bedford’s personal involvement with Colhoun and the extensive creation of freemen. The claim made by an apologist for the Russells that he ‘took no part in the election of 1790, either personally, by agents, or in any other way whatever’, and that the admissions of 1791 were the work of Colhoun and his supporters, is hard to believe. Whether, as was maintained in a more plausible argument, Bedford’s agents, as ‘ardent politicians, and most active Whigs’, were responsible, or whether, as the opponents of the family alleged, the duke personally sought to ‘crupper and control the town’, is not clear, but the practical result was to restore the Woburn interest to a position of effective power and the creations of 1791 were the last of any size during this period.4

Relations between the Duke of Bedford and the corporation were evidently not entirely free from strain as long as Colhoun remained on the scene. The 6th Duke subsequently claimed that in 1801, when Colhoun’s financial difficulties forced his return to the West Indies, ‘various overtures on the part of the corporation’ to his late brother the 5th Duke and ‘much negotiation’ took place before ‘the future nomination of one Member was offered by the corporation and accepted by’ the duke. The original arrangement was for the future 6th Duke himself who, as Lord John Russell, was currently Member for Tavistock, to come in at the dissolution, but the sudden death of his brother on 2 Mar. 1802 necessitated a change of plan. The duke’s nomination fell on Lee Antonie, whose claims were pressed on him by Whitbread and whose reluctance to re-enter the House was overcome largely by Whitbread’s exhortations. The new duke, who replaced his brother as recorder, then tried to dispel the ‘good deal of animosity subsisting at this time between the town and the corporation’. By appealing, with the assistance of Whitbread’s crony William Belsham, across factious divisions for cooperation, he was, as he later maintained, successful ‘in establishing a good understanding between them, and in giving a new character of respectability to the corporation by infusing into the body a large portion of the most creditable of the inhabitants of the town’.5

Bedford and the Whitbreads divided the representation between them for the rest of the period, though there were occasional moments of tension. The duke grew uneasy over Whitbread’s close relationship with Lee Antonie, whom he wished to replace with a more active Member. In 1806, when he was in Ireland as lord lieutenant, he instructed his auditor William Adam* to ‘settle the return’ for his brother, Lord William Russell*, but, as he had feared, Whitbread prevailed on a reluctant Lee Antonie to come forward again. The duke, who considered ‘the nomination to one seat at Bedford as much belonging to me as either Tavistock or Camelford’, was annoyed at Lee Antonie’s failure to consult him. Disturbed by the notions that Whitbread and Belsham had thoughts of Lee Antonie’s ‘establishing an independent interest’, and that the upshot of his efforts to restore harmony in the town might be ‘to dissolve the compact which existed between my family and the corporate body, and to enable Whitbread, Belsham and the townspeople to return both Members’, he told Adam that they ‘must be closely watched as to the local politics of Bedford’, and Lee Antonie’s retirement to make way for Bedford’s second son in 1812 owed much to pressure exerted by the duke.6

When Whitbread committed suicide in 1815 his son-in-law William Waldegrave came in, ostensibly as locum tenens until Whitbread’s son came of age. Shortly before the dissolution of 1818, when William Whitbread was expected to stand, Waldegrave was invited by persons unknown to seek re-election. By his own account he flatly refused because, as he told the Russells, his doing so against Whitbread ‘would be a breach of trust, and on the other side I would not turn out the Duke of Bedford’s son’. That the situation remained potentially awkward is indicated by Bedford’s comment that the plan which he briefly considered for bringing in his youngest son, Lord John Russell II*, and returning Lord George William for Tavistock, where John had sat until 1817, wo;require some delicacy with regard to the Bedfordians in the management of this exchange’. A rumour gained ground that Waldegrave would be put in nomination, with or without his consent, by a group of townsmen. Waldegrave, who thought that the Russells had ‘constantly regretted’ that the untried Whitbread ‘should wish to come in, and hoped that I might sit another Parliament’, because he kept ‘the Bedfordians quiet, by a constant attendance at home and in Parliament’, but that they now feared to put their popularity to the test in a contest, saw the encouragement which they were giving him to stand for Essex as an attempt to get him out of the way. Believing that in the last analysis they would, if he were nominated, drop Lord George William and back himself ‘to preserve their own influence and make it appear their own act’, he thought their best plan would be to do so openly and before their hand was forced; but he resolved to make no personal exertion to secure his election, though he was prepared to accept the seat if he were nominated and returned in absentia in place of Russell. In the event Whitbread and Russell were returned unopposed and Waldegrave was never again in Parliament.7

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. PP (1835), xxvi, 2111; Beds. RO, Lee Antonie mss BS 1177; Bucks. RO, Lee mss D3/60; PRO 30/8/138, f. 1; Grey mss, Coke to Howick, 9 Jan. 1807; Northampton Mercury, 19 June 1790.
  • 2. PP (1835), xxvi. 2111; G. D. Gilmore, Pubs. Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc. xlix (1970), 142; Recs. Bedford Corpn. (Bedford, 1883), 23, 60; Whitbread mss W1/87, 1881.
  • 3. Northampton Mercury, 19 June, 17 July; Sunday Chron. 20 June; Public Advertiser, 21 June 1790; R. Fulford, Samuel Whitbread, 46-48; Whitbread mss W1/1823-4; Fitzwilliam mss, Allen to Fitzwilliam, 4 Feb., Gregory to Cole, 22 Feb. 1791; CJ, xlvi. 53; xlvii. 12, 504, 534.
  • 4. Short Statement of Facts (1831); Procs. before Corpns. Commrs. (Bedford, 1833), 1719; Gilmore, 144-5; R. M. Muggeridge, Hist. Bedford Election (1830), 3-4; PP (1835), xxvi. 2111-12.
  • 5. Blair Adam mss, Bedford to Adam, 27 Nov. 1806; Whitbread mss; W1/847, 1828-9, 2036; PP (1835), xxvi. 2109, 2124.
  • 6. Blair Adam mss, Bedford to Adam, 21 June, 7 Oct., 8, 27 Nov. 1806; Antonie mss UN419-20, 486-7, 528; Whitbread mss W1/1863-4, 1930-1.
  • 7. Waldegrave mss, Waldegrave to his wife, 7 Apr., [May]; Add. 51662, Bedford to Holland, 4 May 1818.