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

Background Information

London returned 4 Members to Parliament

Right of Election:

in the livery

Number of voters:

over 10,000 (‘about 8,000, real voters’ in 1818)1


[City of London] (1801): 222,390


26 June 1790WILLIAM CURTIS4346
 Nathaniel Newnham2670
 William Pickett1064
6 Mar. 1793 JOHN WILLIAM ANDERSON vice Watson, vacated his seat 
12 Mar. 1795 WILLIAM LUSHINGTON vice Sawbridge, deceased2334
 Harvey Christian Combe1560
 William Pickett2795
 Sir Watkin Lewes2357
 Benjamin Travers1371
 Sir Watkin Lewes652
 William Lushington113
 John Atkins314
 John Peter Hankey164
6 May 1807(SIR) CHARLES PRICE, Bt.3117
 John Peter Hankey226
 (SIR) JAMES SHAW, Bt.4082
 Robert Waithman2622
 Matthew Wood2373
 Claudius Stephen Hunter8
10 June 1817 MATTHEW WOOD vice Combe, vacated his seat 
16 June 1818MATTHEW WOOD5715
 (Sir) William Curtis, Bt.4236
 John Atkins1693

Main Article

The number of liverymen (i.e. freemen attached to the City companies and thereby entitled to vote) increased steadily in this period, though London still did not have as many voters, in practice, as Westminster. As Oldfield pointed out, if the franchise had been in the freemen at large the number of electors would have been ten times as great, and if it had been in the inhabitant householders it would have been 31,000. But while contests were endemic and while the susceptibility to political movements of the smaller merchants, shopkeepers and artisans who formed the bulk of the livery continued to make London elections a political pointer, they were not so prominent in this period as in the preceding one, and not until 1818 did the growth of urban radicalism, considered the main theme of London politics in this era, turn the election.2 By 1790, not only had the radicalism of John Wilkes† lost its appeal, even to himself, but its revival, stimulated by the French revolution, did not, in the City, produce the same charismatic leadership as had earlier been available there and was still manifest in Westminster in the persons of Fox and Burdett. The London radicals were divided as to their programme, and their spokesman: the rivalry between Waithman and Wood at the election of 1812 illustrated this. From 1794 onwards, and with increasing momentum from 1809, the livery in common hall and sometimes the common council passed resolutions hostile to government. These were the despair of ‘loyal’ liverymen and of the merchant princes of the corporation, some of whom patronized a conservative club, the Constitutional Livery (otherwise known as the Loyal Livery), formed to strengthen the hand of government in 1797.3 Such resolutions served most effectively as a guide to like-minded critics outside the House and their ‘instructions’ were deprecated by most of the Members returned for London. While the latter frequently paid lip-service to the recognition due to the wishes of their constituents, they were ready nevertheless to assert that a resolution in common hall was an unrepresentative radical contrivance and to encourage counter-resolutions from the ‘loyal’ majority: only the Whig Members Sawbridge and Combe, and the renegade Whig Sir Watkin Lewes in the 1790s stood by ‘instructions’ voluntarily: the others maintained that they were representatives with consciences of their own, not delegates. This issue came to the fore in the election of 1802. Even Waithman, the nearest thing to a charismatic demagogue to emerge in this period, maintained in the campaign of 1818 that he must not be shackled by his constituents.4 All Members, and particularly the ministerialists representing the major commercial interests, promised attention to London’s economic development. As the Public Advertiser observed, 11 June 1790, ‘Those who are candidates for London should have a thorough knowledge of its extensive trade, qualified to argue with a minister of state on any point relative to commerce’. Attempts to discredit Combe, the only Foxite returned in 1796, were based partly on allegations that he would rather be a fashionable playboy than a serious businessman. Moreover, all Members being aldermen either at the time of their election or not long afterwards, with the exception of Thomas Wilson in 1818, they were all expected to maintain the privileges of the City. In 1810, for instance, all of them came to its defence when the common hall resolution for an address to the King ‘on his throne’ was rebuffed by ministers, even if they disliked the resolution; and subsequently, when abuses in the corporation’s administration were hinted at in the House by outsiders such as Holme Sumner, Member for Surrey, even Mathew Wood, the archetypal municipal improver, was prone to come to their defence.

In 1790, when the show of hands at nomination foreshadowed the result of the poll, opposition lost a seat, Newnham being defeated. A newcomer, Alderman Curtis, who was however the favourite and prepared to spend lavishly, headed the poll as an independent friend of government, followed by Watson and Lewes, who also supported Pitt. Sawbridge, who came in fourth after heavy support on the last day, was now the lone oppositionist and the last remaining link with the metropolitan radicalism of Wilkes; not an effective one, since he became insane during the Parliament. Newnham’s somewhat surprising defeat was attributed to a negligent canvass and to his support for the payment of the Prince of Wales’s debts by government.5 A sixth candidate, Pickett, the reformist lord mayor, who had eschewed organized support and appealed for free suffrage, came nowhere.

In 1793, in the course of this Parliament, Watson was replaced by the like-minded Anderson after an unavailing attempt to put up Newnham, who had changed sides by then. Pitt would have preferred Sir Richard Carr Glyn*, but thy latter demurred. In 1795, on Sawbridge’s death, Alderman Combe came forward as the late Member’s ‘friend’, sponsored by Lord Mayor Skinner who had himself declined, and, as the Whig favourite, ‘had a very respectable show’, but was defeated with ease by Lushington, the choice of the merchant princes. Had Lushington not come forward, ‘Mr Newbery of St. Paul’s churchyard’ was prepared to do so on the same side. Pickett had again offered, stung into activity by the partiality of the lord mayor, but he had ‘very few hands in his favour’. Combe complained of the use of undue influence against him and promised to stand again. He gained credit by leading the opposition to the sedition bills in common hall later that year and, with the ward elections going in favour of opposition in December 1795, was a much stronger candidate at the election of 1796, when he stood in avowed hostility to the war. Alderman Skinner again made way for him. Despite an attempt to encourage a coalition of the sitting Members against Combe, he succeeded, thanks, it was said, to the secret support of Lord Mayor Curtis, and thereby ousted Lewes, who was defeated even for fifth place by the persevering Pickett, another opponent of the sedition bills. Lewes’s proposals for the London militia were alleged to have made him unpopular and his public rebuttal of them got him nowhere.6

In 1802 Lushington retired, though he was nominated in absentia and received a number of token votes. He was replaced on the ministerial interest, after Aldermen Hibbert and Shaw had declined, by Alderman Price. Again three ministerialists and one Whig, Combe, were returned, the latter heading the poll. On the eve of the election, the radical livery, irritated by ministerialist Members’ reluctance to adopt their instructions in common hall as to how to vote on such critical issues as the income tax, attempted to promulgate the doctrine of delegation rather than representation as the principle of election, 5 July, in a set of resolutions. Among the possible candidates on this platform were Thomas Jones*, who with his coadjutor in Parliament, Bateman Robson, had joined the livery in March; George Shum*, and Benjamin Travers, a radical and presbyterian sugar baker. In the event Travers and Robert Waithman, the most prominent spokesman for the radical livery on 5 July against the qualifications of the existing candidates, were put in nomination; but Waithman was hissed when he spoke, and withdrew, leaving the field to Travers, who did well on the show of hands, but gave up the poll on the fourth day, finding that his candidature had come too late. Travers had agreed to withdraw if the other candidates accepted the principle of delegation, but while Combe and Lewes did so, the ministerialists Anderson, Curtis and Price refused to ‘put their consciences in commission’ and opposed the promotion of ‘unconstitutional tests and restrictions’. The Times complimented them on resisting a principle which ‘would have degraded the British senator to the condition of a Dutch deputy’. Sir Watkin Lewes, who was in dire financial straits and had clutched at the straw of obedience to instructions, fared worst: he was arrested by his creditors on the hustings. He petitioned in complaint, alleging further that there was a shortage of poll clerks, 7 Dec. 1802, but this was at length found frivolous, 3 Mar. 1804.7

In 1806, when Anderson made way for Lord Mayor Shaw, there was otherwise no change: Waithman (who declined to stand himself) and his adherents supported John Atkins, who fared badly and soon retired. On the other side, Alderman Hankey, a banker, was put up, but demurred, because of a previous promise to support Shaw, though the latter was willing to give way to him. Another non-starter was Alderman Thomas Rowcroft. Combe was criticized for his exertions to top the poll, a symptom of vanity. In 1807 there was no change, but Hankey, who stood again, was doing very well when he died as a result of his exertions on the first day of the poll. As he was the only other candidate, Alderman Prinsep, who was also mentioned in 1806 having declined, the poll continued only pro forma, each of the successful candidates voting for Hankey in tribute to his memory. Hankey had denied that he was a sympathizer with the outgoing ministry, and Curtis, though he now insisted on his loyalty to church and King, was criticized for being a supporter of every administration, but apart from this the election was subdued.8

In 1809 Robert Waithman began a campaign to discredit the sitting Members, except Combe, for subservience to government; common hall resolutions censured them for not voting against the Duke of York’s misconduct, 1 Apr. 1809, and censured ministers for their misconduct of the Walcheren expedition at the end of that year. Curtis temporarily yielded to this pressure from the city ‘patriots’ in the session of 1810 and all the Members rebuked ministers for preventing a common hall resolution in sympathy with (Sir) Francis Burdett* from reaching the King ‘on his throne’ in April 1810. A counter-petition from ‘Loyal Liverymen’ was followed by a mob attack on them as they dined at the Old London tavern. After this their ardour cooled and so did radical enthusiasm: by the time of the election of 1812, the radicals were divided between Waithman and Alderman Wood, a Whig municipal reformer: neither would give way to the other and they and their friends were soon at daggers drawn. The result was that the radical vote was split and neither was returned. The vacancy caused by the retirement of Sir Charles Price was filled by Alderman Atkins, who had stood at Waithman’s instigation in 1806, but had since become a friend of government and had outraged the radicals by his subservience in 1809-10; they tried to howl him down. When Lord Mayor Hunter, whose friends had nominated him, stood down, Atkins asked for their votes and easily defeated Waithman for fourth place. Waithman, who had treated the Livery to a recital of his radical credentials and championed the small shopkeeper against ‘the great interests ... the East India Company, the Bank, the Post Office and the Docks’, was supported by public subscription, organized by Alderman Samuel Favell, but had in the end to admit the superiority of ‘corrupt influence’. His friends criticized Combe for doing nothing to help his weaker and more radical brethren.9

After 1812 Waithman and Wood competed for popular favour in their efforts to promote resolutions hostile to government in common hall; but Wood, as mayor for two years running, 1815-17, gained the upper hand, and thanks to the initiative of his friend ‘Orator’ Hunt, he came in unexpectedly and unopposed in June 1817 after Hunt had forced the ailing Combe into instant retirement. Combe’s son publicly denied that there was any prior agreement. Waithman made a virtue of ceding to Wood and promised to offer at the next opportunity. Alderman Heygate, who had been invited by the moderate Whigs to stand, objected to the whole transaction and promised to stand next time—though in fact he found a seat elsewhere.10

At the election of 1818, Sir James Shaw retired and was replaced by Thomas Wilson, a representative of the merchant princes who was not even of the corporation but pointed out that this was not an essential qualification for candidature. The opposition were strongly represented by Wood, Waithman and Thorp, who after the withdrawal of Aldermen Birch and Rowcroft, fought it out with Wilson and his fellow conservatives, Curtis and Atkins. The last two were sensationally defeated, giving the Whigs three seats, though Wilson stated that he belonged to neither party and was not hissed off the hustings like Curtis and Atkins. Curtis, who was reported to have had ‘a bad committee’, would probably not have been defeated had not Thorp’s poll been augmented by votes no longer needed by his more secure colleagues. This ‘prodigious’ triumph for ‘the popular cause’, as it was hailed by the Whigs, was not repeated in 1820, when the London election was ‘a great triumph to ministers’; but that was no longer a foregone conclusion, and could, in George Tierney’s* view, have been avoided.11

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. The Times, 16 June 1818. The Public Advertiser, 16 June 1790, denying an allegation that there were 11,000 liverymen, stated that there were ‘not much exceeding 8,000 in number; seldom more than about 6,000 poll, even on a great contest’.
  • 2. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iv. 185. For municipal politics, see R. R. Sharpe, London and the Kingdom (3 vols. 1894-5); IHR Bull. xlvi. 72.
  • 3. Morning Chron. 17 June 1797; Corp. London RO 195, procs. 1797-9.
  • 4. The Times, 17 June 1818.
  • 5. Beaven, Aldermen of London, ii. 135; Parl. Portraits (1795), ii. 63-65; Public Advertiser, 17, 18, 19, 21, 30 June; Sunday Chron. 20 June 1790.
  • 6. Beaven, i. 309; PRO 30/8/118, f. 237; Add. 47569, f. 54; Sun, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28 Feb., 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 Mar.; Oracle, 19, 21 Nov.; Morning Chron. 3, 25 Dec. 1795; True Briton, 31 Mar., 17 May-11 June 1796.
  • 7. The Times, 16-19 Mar., 10, 14 Apr., 7 May, 19, 22, 24 June, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 16 July, 2 Oct. 1802; General Election of 1802, p. 71; CJ, lviii. 69; lix. 132.
  • 8. The Times, 16, 25 Oct., 1-10 Nov.; Morning Post, 20 Oct., 1, 10 Nov. 1806; Farington, iv. 55; Gent. Mag. (1807), i. 493; The Times, 29, 30 Apr., 7-14 May 1807; Annual Reg. (1807), 260; Morning Chron. 2 May; Morning Post, 1, 2, 4 May 1807.
  • 9. Grey mss, Goodwin to Grey, 24 Dec.; The Times, 3, 6-13 Oct. 1812.
  • 10. Hunt, Mems. iii. 484-91; The Times, 5, 10 June 1817.
  • 11. The Times, 15-24 June; Morning Chron. 2, 6, 12 June; Carlisle mss, Lady to Ld. Morpeth Sat. [20 June 1818]; Greville Mems. ed. Strachey and Fulford, i. 56; Morning Herald, 24 June 1818; Pope of Holland House ed. Lady Seymour, 200; Add. 48223, f. 141; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 17 Mar. 1820.