Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the resident freemen
Number of voters:
rising to about 500 in 1820
|22 June 1790||SIR HENRY BRIDGEMAN, Bt.|
|9 Sept. 1794||HON. JOHN SIMPSON vice Bridgeman, called to the Upper House|
|30 May 1796||HON. JOHN SIMPSON|
|8 July 1802||HON. JOHN SIMPSON|
|4 Nov. 1806||HON. JOHN SIMPSON|
|8 May 1807||HON. JOHN SIMPSON|
|8 Oct. 1812||HON. JOHN SIMPSON|
|CECIL (WELD) FORESTER|
|20 June 1818||HON. JOHN SIMPSON|
|CECIL (WELD) FORESTER|
The prevailing interest at Wenlock was that of the Forester family, of Willey Park nearby, who had represented the borough in Henry VIII’s reign and did so virtually without a break from 1688 until 1885. In 1790 George Forester retired after 30 years’ service and his cousin and heir at law Cecil Forester succeeded him for the next 30 years. The other seat was held by the Bridgeman family, second in point of influence, who collaborated with the Foresters, and like them, after going over to administration with the Portland Whigs, supported the government of the day. Sir Henry Bridgeman was rewarded with a peerage in 1794 and succeeded in his seat by his son John Simpson. There had been no poll at Wenlock since 1722 and the next one was in 1820 when the long dormant Lawley interest was revived.1
Wenlock was nevertheless classed as an open borough. The contest of 1820 brought to the surface a submerged opposition to the Forester-Bridgeman coalition which had existed since at least 1780, but which had hitherto lacked a favourable opportunity, provided on this occasion by the withdrawal of the Bridgeman representative, John Simpson, who found Wenlock too expensive (his family had always paid half of the expenses to the Foresters).2 Undoubtedly the prudent management of George Forester, who continued to direct Wenlock affairs until his death in 1811, minimized the chances of effective opposition. It came from the families of Williams Wynn of Wynnstay and Lawley of Canwell. The former had property and influence at Much Wenlock and the latter had lost the borough to the Foresters in 1727 and moved away. In 1784 Sir Watkin Williams Wynn†, 4th Bt. (d.1789) and Sir Robert Lawley*, 5th Bt., had thought of a coalition, involving also a Catholic ally, Sir Richard Acton of Aldenham (d.1791), but it had been thwarted by a compromise arranged by George Forester whereby his family should nominate one Member and the other local gentry the second Member. Their endorsement of Sir Henry Bridgeman on this occasion was a confirmation of Forester’s influence, since the Bridgemans possessed in fact little property in the borough and remained therefore subordinate and duly grateful to Forester in retaining the seat. Neither in 1784 nor in 1790 did a Williams Wynn-Lawley alliance achieve anything; and when Bridgeman secured a peerage as Lord Bradford in 1794, George Forester, who could not openly avow it, secretly facilitated his son’s return unopposed, by getting him to approach the young Sir Watkin Williams Wynn* and Sir Robert Lawley*, 6th Bt., for their acquiescence first.3 The latter had been disposed to offer himself, but gave way.4
Lord Bradford now attempted to ascertain Sir Watkin’s future intentions: on 23 Jan. 1795, he informed George Forester that he could obtain no ‘absolute promise of support, as Sir Watkin said he had brothers, who might wish to be in Parliament’, but that the baronet had ‘expressed a disinclination to disturb the peace of the place, or interrupt the present representation’. On 9 Feb. 1795, Bradford wrote that Sir Watkin was keen for his brother Charles to come into Parliament at the general election and that he could not but concur with this, but hoped that if Sir Watkin did not put up his brother, he would continue to support Bradford’s son, though Sir Watkin had also mentioned Sir Robert Lawley’s claims, without absolutely committing himself to support them.5 Forester was prepared to accept one of Sir Watkin’s brothers, but not Lawley; meanwhile he discouraged Sir Watkin’s claims by buying off the latter’s agent, the attorney Richard Collins, with the deputy town clerkship and the promise of another post. There was consequently no opposition in 1796 and Bradford informed Forester, 2 June, that he hoped ‘that the names of Forester and Bradford will ever go hand in hand’, and thanked him for ‘your kindness to me and mine’.6
In July 1800, after Bradford’s death, there was a contretemps when George Forester was misled by his nephew Cecil into supposing that John Simpson, who now had a seat for Wigan at his disposal, was vacating his seat in favour of Sir Watkin’s brother, and that Sir Watkin required his consent to the arrangement, which he readily gave. The news brought Simpson post haste to Wenlock, only to learn that Sir Watkin’s wishes referred to the next general election. Forester had supposed that some sort of agreement had been reached between the late Lord Bradford and the late Sir Watkin as to the disposal of the seat, but Simpson denied it and proposed to consult ‘all the gentlemen, who had before approved him, and if they did not mean to give him a like future support, as before, he would then retire, but not before such a decision had taken place against him’. Informing Sir Watkin of this, George Forester made it clear that he had never, since 1784, interfered in the disposal of the second seat and appeased him with the assurance that he thought ‘the union of our two families at a proper honourable moment will not prove the worst thing that ever happened to this country instead of having riot and general disturbance on this now peaceable spot’. Despite this, Forester’s agent John Pritchard compiled for him in February 1801 an account of the development of the franchise at Wenlock, probably in anticipation of trouble.7 There was none, but in May 1806 opposition was again expected from Sir Watkin. An attempt was made to settle the business ‘amicably’ but it failed, and by July the ground of Sir Watkin’s strategy was clear: he proposed to poll only the burgesses of the parish of Much Wenlock, enfranchised by the original charter, and to deny the legality of the votes from the other 17 parishes to which the franchise had gradually extended. This occasioned close scrutiny of the borough records by Forester and Simpson, but on the eve of the election, Sir Watkin informed Lord Grenville, 17 Oct. 1806, ‘I fear I shall not be able to do anything at Wenlock’, and on 20 Oct. he told Cecil Forester that, as his brother Henry had not returned from the Continent, he would give no trouble on this occasion, as ‘you know it was only for the sake of my own family that I had any thought of ever disturbing the borough’.8
Henry Williams Wynn was absent once more in 1807. In 1809 Sir Watkin’s agent Collins was promoted to the town clerkship, Cecil Forester securing Collins’s word that he would ‘never go against the Forester family on behalf of Sir Watkin Wynn at elections’. In 1812 Sir Watkin evidently had a scheme to placate Sir Stephen Glynne (d.1815) of Hawarden, whom he had edged out of Flint Boroughs, by offering him an opening at Wenlock: to the baronet’s vexation, Glynne, who had some property in the neighbourhood, ‘played the fool in declining a seat for Wenlock, which he now finds [wrote Thomas Grenville on 18 Oct.] he should have kept for life and regrets accordingly. I am sorry for it because I wish him well, but as a political voter, I do not believe we lose by his loss.’9
Although John Simpson had contemplated retirement in favour of his nephew Lord Newport in 1816,10 when a dissolution was expected, he did not retire until February 1820; whereupon his nephew decided that Wigan was cheaper for him than Wenlock, and the second seat was thrown open and disputed between a member of the Lawley family patronized by Sir Watkin, and the neighbouring gentry. The latter were successful in the contest, but in 1822 Sir Watkin intimidated the Foresters into an electoral compromise.11 In 1821 when Cecil Forester received a peerage, he wished to take the title of Baron Wenlock of Willey: a token of his supremacy in the borough, for the title of Lord Wenlock, long extinct, had been held by the Lawley family who were now challenging him. Sir Robert Lawley petitioned the King to prevent this title being granted.12
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Sir L. Namier, Structure of Pols. 243; Trans. Salop Arch. and Nat. Hist. Soc. (ser. 3), ii. 345.
- 2. J. D. Nichol, ‘Wynnstay, Willey and Wenlock 1780-1832’; Trans. Salop Arch. and Nat. Hist. Soc. lviii. 220.
- 3. Bradford mss, G. Forester to Lady Bradford, 27 July, 7, 11 Aug. 1794.
- 4. Salop RO, Forester mss 1224/336, Bradford to Forester, 30 Oct. 1794.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Bradford mss, Forester to Bradford, 20 May; Forester mss 1224/336, Bradford to Forester, 2, 22 Nov. 1795.
- 7. Forester mss 1224/336, Forester to Sir W. Williams Wynn, July 1800, Pritchard to Forester, 12 Feb. 1801.
- 8. Ibid. C. Forester to Pritchard, 27, 29 May; Simpson to same, 29 May, 18 July, 27 Aug., 3 Oct., Sir W. Williams Wynn to Forester [20 Oct. 1806]; Fortescue mss.
- 9. Forester mss 1224/336, C. to G. Forester, 26 Sept. 1809; Fortescue mss, T. to Ld. Grenville, 18 Oct. 1812.
- 10. Bradford mss, Bradford to Weld Forester, 19 Nov. 1816.
- 11. Forester mss 1224/337.
- 12. Ibid. 1224/331, Weld Forester to Bloomfield, n.d.; Add. 38369, f. 332.