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

Background Information

Number of voters:

about 9,000


29 June 1790SIR JOHN TREVELYAN, Bt. 
14 Sept 1792 HENRY HIPPISLEY COXE vice Phelips, deceased 
21 Sept. 1795 WILLIAM GORE LANGTON vice Coxe, deceased 
16 June 1806 THOMAS BUCKLER LETHBRIDGE vice Dickinson, deceased 
 William Gore Langton2229
 (Sir) Thomas Buckler Lethbridge, Bt.2024

Main Article

The county gentry would not hear of an aristocratic representative, but vied among themselves for the county seats. There had been no actual contest since 1715, but only the fear of expense and the convenient assumption, denied in theory but usually observed in practice, that the eastern and western parts of the county should have a Member each, prevented others before the spell was finally broken in 1807. Thus in 1792, on the death of Phelips of Montacute, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, 9th Bt., whose father had been a county Member, withdrew his pretensions, it being ‘objected to him that he belongs to the western part of the county’. The year before he had felt slighted because Pitt had ignored a patronage application made by him.1 The competition was between Hippisley Coxe of Ston Easton, brother of a former county Member, and William Dickinson of Kingweston. Coxe was first in the field but did not then indicate his political views, and Dickinson seems to have expected to offer as the friend of government. He was thwarted by Coxe’s ‘public declaration’ of political orthodoxy and withdrew. Lord Buckingham, however, informed Pitt, 4 Sept. 1792:

I cannot compliment you upon your Somerset manoeuvres ... we might have elected any friend whom you had named, or ... Mr Coxe would have sworn allegiance if he had been properly called upon; as matters now stand he is tied to nothing except to oppose T[homas] Paine; and he is duly sensible that government have obstructed his election and he will probably mark his sense of that obstruction by a steady opposition.

Dickinson was consoled by assurances of his prudence in having ‘nothing to do with a county opposition’.2

On Coxe’s death in 1795 there was again a competition between Dickinson (who sought the Duke of Portland’s assistance) and William Gore Langton of Newton, a contender in 1784. An attempt was made by Sir John Lethbridge* and John Tyndale Warre to avert what promised to be a contest by inducing both men to withdraw in favour of a third; but Dickinson preferred to withdraw in Gore Langton’s favour, with the prospect of coming in at the general election. Gore Langton was criticized for having allegedly broken an engagement he had previously made, but John Berkeley Burland*, a potential opponent, withdrew at the county meeting. Dickinson’s unopposed return in 1796 was facilitated by the retirement of Sir John Trevelyan, the veteran sitting Member. His political orthodoxy was vouched for to Pitt by the latter’s kinsman James Grenville* (afterwards Lord Glastonbury).3

There was no disturbance at the election of 1802: (Sir) John Coxe Hippisley* had denied in December 1801 that he aspired to the county.4 In September 1805 Dickinson’s declining health led to a competition between his son William and John Acland of Fairfield, whose pretensions were championed by the Whig leader Fox: they had already been in competition for the chair of the county quarter sessions earlier that year and Acland had then prevailed. Now Acland canvassed privately, criticizing Dickinson senior’s vote in favour of Melville, and his son’s Admiralty place as evidence of ‘being too much connected with the minister’. Acland was warned, through Gore Langton, that he was ill-advised to challenge the sitting Members, as ‘many might be roused by a sense of the present Members being unhandsomely treated to oppose him, who but for this consideration might have been friendly, or indifferent’. Dickinson was advised to counter Acland’s activity by persuading John Kemeys Tynte of Halswell and Sir John Lethbridge that their own aspirations to the county would be hindered if ‘so young a man as Mr Acland should be the representative of the western part of the county’.5 Acland, backed by Sir John Coxe Hippisley and Lord Porchester, seems to have given up his pretensions in April, but renewed them when Dickinson died on 26 May 1806. On the same day died John Kemeys Tynte, whose son Charles waived his claim in favour of Thomas Buckler Lethbridge, Sir John’s heir. Lord Glastonbury appealed to Lord Grenville to support Dickinson in his father’s place, his political line being ‘perfectly orthodox’, though he admitted that government influence was not easy to apply in Somerset. He thought Lethbridge ‘an improper person’ and Lord Grenville was thought ‘rather inclined against’ him.6 Yet first Dickinson and then Acland withdrew, letting Lethbridge in unopposed after a ‘highly successful’ canvass of the east of the county. Dickinson soon indicated that he would persevere and declined office from Grenville, lest it raise ‘a popular cry’ against him. Lethbridge contemplated a junction with Gore Langton to keep him out. But at the general election in October, Gore Langton withdrew in a huff, complaining of the use of professional agents in his canvass by Dickinson, previous to the nomination meeting. Dickinson was obliged to promise Gore Langton’s disgruntled friends that this would not occur again, being ‘improper and unconstitutional’. He and Lethbridge were then returned unopposed. Gore Langton regretted ‘that the landed interest should be obliged to give way to monied men’, a dig at the commercial fortune that underpinned Dickinson.7

In 1807 Gore Langton obtained his opportunity for revenge when the ‘No Popery’ cry damaged Dickinson’s prospects: but after 6,300 freeholders (two-thirds in his estimate) had polled over eight days, he conceded victory. He lacked transport facilities to persevere. He complained that east Somerset was no longer represented, but washed his hands of the county.8 Dickinson had 1,705 plumpers and shared 1,145 voters with Lethbridge and 801 with Gore Langton. Lethbridge had 1,221 plumpers and shared 530 with Gore Langton, who had 898 plumpers.

In 1812 it was Lethbridge’s prospects that were damaged by his parliamentary role in sending (Sir) Francis Burdett* to the Tower, according to the Whigs, and his anticipated disinheritance by his father was a strong personal setback. A subscription was raised to enable Gore Langton to make a comeback and Lethbridge withdrew. He intended to return to the fray and did so in 1818, having meanwhile come into his inheritance. Gore Langton was his target, but his avowal of disapproval, as a ‘King and Church man’, of the politics of both sitting Members only drove them into each others’ arms, with full encouragement from their supporters. After four days and a poll of 4,644 freeholders, he gave up, to the disappointment of ministerial supporters.9 He did not agree that his own provocation of a coalition against himself was the chief reason for his defeat, though there were allegations that he might have secured an alliance with Langton. Privately he wrote, 10 July 1818:

I cannot find that I am blamed for anything but the late offer—and I certainly blame myself for not coming forward earlier, and for not canvassing the three previous days to the nomination. This was the cause of my losing the election, for even the coalition could not then have operated in the way in which it did ... from a calculation which I have made, I find Mr Langton only gave about 850 split votes to Mr Dickinson—whilst Mr D. gave about 1,250 to Mr L. ... It will have this bad effect upon Mr Dickinson, that he will be involved again at the next election in another contest and so on, as long as that proportion of the county who think with me on public questions, are kept from being represented in Parliament by the election of an individual so totally opposite to us as Mr Langton.

Dickinson certainly had reason for caution, having spent £7,715 on the election; and next time Lethbridge forced Gore Langton to retire.10

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Sidmouth mss, Ley to Addington, 13 Aug. 1792; PRO 30/8/173, f. 32.
  • 2. Som. RO, Dickinson mss DN 264, passim; PRO 30/8/117, f. 51.
  • 3. Portland mss PwF3347; Oracle, 10 Aug.; Bristol Jnl. 29 Aug., 9 Sept. 1795; True Briton, 3 June 1796; PRO 30/8/140, ff. 189, 193.
  • 4. The Times, 16 Dec. 1801.
  • 5. T. C. Dilks, C. J. Fox and the Borough of Bridgwater, 35 (where Fox’s letter should be dated 17 Sept. 1805); PRO 30/8/129, f. 249; Dickinson mss DN 272, Godden to Dickinson, 24 Oct. 1805.
  • 6. Pol. Reg. 14 June; Som. RO, Kemeys Tynte mss S/WH box 53, Kemeys Tynte to Sir P. Hales, 27 May, to Gen. Slade, 5 June, Lethbridge to Kemeys Tynte [1], reply 2 June; Fortescue mss, Glastonbury to Grenville, 29 May, Wilson to same [12 June]; Spencer mss, Lady to Ld. Spencer, 3 Nov. 1806.
  • 7. Kemeys Tynte mss S/WH box 53, Shawd (sic) to Kemeys Tynte, 16 June, Lethbridge to same, 1 Aug., Gore Langton to same, 29, 30 Oct.; Fortescue mss, Dickinson to Grenville, 20 Oct.; Bristol Jnl. 1 Nov. 1806.
  • 8. Kemeys Tynte mss S/WH box 53, Coles to Kemeys Tynte, 2 May, Gore Langton to same, 28 May; Fortescue mss, Carrington to ?Grenville, 19 May; Bristol Jnl. 23 May 1807.
  • 9. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. iv. 409; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 3 Jan. 1816; Som. RO, Drake mss NE/12, Lethbridge to Drake, 17, 18, [20] June 1818; The Late Elections (1818), 279-93; Add. 38458, ff. 261, 262; Taunton Courier, 25 June, 9 July 1818.
  • 10. Drake mss NE/12, Lethbridge to Drake, 10 July 1818; Dickinson mss DN 282, Toller to Dickinson, 4 Oct. 1819.