London Politics 1713-1717 Minutes of A Whig Club 1714-1717, London Pollbooks 1713. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1981.
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'Introduction', in London Politics 1713-1717 Minutes of A Whig Club 1714-1717, London Pollbooks 1713, (London, 1981) pp. 1-10. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-record-soc/vol17/pp1-10 [accessed 29 February 2024]
MINUTES OF A WHIG CLUB 1714-1717
Guildhall Library manuscript 197 consists of the minutes of a Whig political club operating within the City of London during the last months of Queen Anne's reign and the early years of King George I's. The minutes take up eighty-two folios, numbered pages 1 to 164, in a volume 7½ inches high by 5¾ inches wide and containing a total of ninety-four folios (three blank at the beginning, nine more at the end). Virtually nothing is known of the manuscript's provenance. The political character of the club is not in doubt: those present at its meetings include numerous Whig notables of the City, and the club was especially active in organising preparations for the annual elections of Common Council in December 1715 and December 1716.
To describe these minutes as the record of a London Whig club only raises further questions. Why do they begin in May 1714 and what does their abrupt termination in January 1717 signify? Why did the club not get involved with some important aspects of the political process in the City during these years—the regulating of the lieutenancy during the autumn of 1714 for one, the parliamentary elections of January 1715 for another? How effective was the club in its areas of activity? Finally, what connection was there between this City organisation and the Whig ministry at Westminster?
The opening pages of the manuscript appear to record the club's beginnings. The first entry is headed 'names of the members of a club', and twenty-two men are listed; the second gives 'the names of the several wards and their representatives'; and shortly afterwards comes a list of additional 'persons recommended to be admitted'. There are also provisions for paying the club's incidental expenses.
However, the group may well have been formed before the minutes start, and on this point some further evidence survives in the Corporation of London Record Office miscellaneous manuscript 166.25. (fn. 1) Under this number are filed a dozen or so sheets of notes made by the club's secretary, chiefly accounts of expenses incurred and monies received in his official capacity. Much of the information these sheets contain does appear in the financial entries in Guildhall manuscript 197, but these papers do add to our knowledge on several scores. First, the secretary refers to himself by name as David Le Gros, a little known figure despite his subsequent service as Secretary to the Bank of England. (fn. 2) Second, with respect to the club's origins, entries in his earliest sheet of expenses, dated 1714 and headed 'HS D[ebto]r to DLG', take us back before 20 May—the date of the first meeting recorded in the minutes. Le Gros's sheet of expenses begins with an entry for 22 April noting the purchase of three quires of ruled paper; the next, dated 20 May, refers to his 'first attendance as Secretary'. It may well be, then, that the club's minutes begin not when the group was formed but rather after it was decided to appoint a secretary and when that secretary began to act.
This supposition is reinforced by consideration of the list of twenty-two members which constitutes the first entry in the minutes. Le Gros's papers include two other lists of members: one has twenty names (with addresses) in much the same order as the first twenty given in the minutes; the second, an account of dues paid from Midsummer's Day 1715 to Lady Day 1716, gives the two names missing from Le Gros's first list (Moses Raper and John Thompson, the last two listed in the minutes), but the twenty-two are not in the order found in the minutes.
Too much should not be made of the differences between the list in the minutes and those in Le Gros's papers, but there are further difficulties with the set of 'founding' members. For one thing, at least five of them (James Fisher, John Hatley, Gabriel Smythe, James Cooper and John Warner) were subsequently issued invitations to join a group they presumably helped to found (9,37), and three of the twenty-two (Warner, Raper and Thompson) are not recorded as attending any meetings until 1715 when the two latter were formally admitted as members (75). For another, though eighteen of the 'founders' were among the twenty-two most diligent attenders during the club's recorded existence, Smythe, Raper, Richard Houblon and Richard Blowen were not. Joining the eighteen were James Craggs, Sir Gilbert Heathcote, Sir Harcourt Masters and John Egleton, and it is noteworthy that these four only began to attend late in 1715 as the club made preparations for the election of a new Common Council that December.
Just as the list of 'founding' members raises as many questions as it appears to answer, so neither the club's recorded proceedings during its early months nor Le Gros's papers help to supply an explanation as to why the club adopted a formal organisation in May 1714. Le Gros, to be sure, refers to the group as the 'HS' in several of his papers, and these initials might be supposed to relate to the Hanoverian Succession. Certainly, spring 1714 was a time of crisis in national politics, with the Queen's health failing and the succession apparently in doubt, and at this juncture some City Whigs were reported to be preparing to defend the Hanoverians' claim, by force if need be. (fn. 3) Yet, there is no evidence in the club's minutes of any concern to secure the succession; between May and November 1714, the only subjects mentioned in the twenty-six meetings minuted by Le Gros were the recruitment of additional members and the preparation of canvassing lists of City householders and liverymen. Even in December, when a new Common Council was to be chosen for 1715, the club took an interest only in the election for the ward of Cornhill (30). Perhaps, then, it might be more plausible to expand Le Gros's abbreviation to read the 'H[onourable] S[ociety]', but this is speculation.
In any event, the club's minutes show no great increase in political activity for most of 1715, and only as the time approached for the choice of a Common Council for 1716 were the group's meetings transformed from largely convivial evenings into electoral strategy sessions. It is true that in March 1715 the club took up the important question of the City franchise, in particular whether the Whigs would benefit from a reversal of the Common Council's act of 1692 barring all non-freemen from voting in elections for Common Councilmen (40, 62, 71, 76). But until November 1715, the club's other business, apart from renewed efforts to fill its own ranks so that every ward would be represented, was largely prompted by outside stimuli: the selection of commissioners for the land tax in the City, coupled with an attempt to resolve a dispute about the choice of collectors of the tax in Bread Street Ward (41, 44, 48, 71); the recommendation of individuals for places in the London establishment of the Post Office (47, 52, 54, 73); and the compilation of lists of 'persons disaffected to the government and non-jurors' to assist the lieutenancy in making searches on the eve of the Fifteen (55-9, 61, 64).
Once, however, the decision was made to take an active role in the choice of a new Common Council for 1716, the club moved into high gear. Lists of recommended candidates were drawn up, the precinct books prepared the previous year were distributed to the organisers of canvasses in the various wards, funds were allotted for expenses in individual wards, and careful attention was given to the selection of members of a crown commission to be appointed to administer the oaths to City inhabitants. (fn. 4) Other measures adopted included the preparation of a loyalty association to George I and the mobilisation of various types of 'influence'—that of the Court, the Whig Lord Mayor Sir Charles Peers, the Bank of England and the East India Company (76 and ff.).
After the election, the club remained busy. During the winter and early spring of 1716, the group worked to gain the choice of its nominees to the principal committees of the City administration (106 and ff.). Then, during the closing months of 1716, the club again sought to secure the return of Whig Common Councilmen for 1717 (126 and ff.).
In the light of the club's electoral activities during the closing weeks of 1716, the abrupt end to the minutes in January 1717 comes as a surprise. There is no hint in the minutes that the members were considering the dissolution of their organisation. Nor does lack of space in the minute book account for the termination of the record, for nine blank folios follow the last entry. However, the cessation of the minutes does coincide with the commencement of a new stage in Le Gros's career. The last club meeting recorded was that of 19 December 1716; the last entry, which deals with election finances, is dated 2 January 1717. And on 16 January 1717 Le Gros was elected Secretary to the Governor and Directors of the Bank of England. Yet if Le Gros's new position explains the ending of his minutes, it does not necessarily follow that the group broke up when its secretary departed.
Given that neither the origins nor the demise of the club can be determined precisely, the brief summary of its business during Le Gros's secretaryship should make it clear that the bulk of its recorded political activity centered on the Common Council elections of December 1715 and December 1716, coupled with the selection of committees in the City government during the term of the 1716 Common Council. But while the club was principally concerned with City affairs, it did have close connections with the predominantly Whig ministry appointed by George I after his arrival in England. Among the twenty-two most frequent attenders were three current members of the 1715-22 parliament (Charles Cooke, John Eyles and Sir Gilbert Heathcote), and four other sitting M.P.s made occasional appearances. Again, three of the twenty-two were appointed to office under the crown in the early years of the reign, and five other royal officials attended at least once. (fn. 5)
The chief link between the ministers and the club was supplied by James Craggs senior, appointed (with Lord Cornwallis) Postmaster General early in 1715. It is no coincidence that the only time the club was asked for its recommendation in matters of patronage was in connection with London places on the Post Office's establishment. Craggs's position carried with it an official residence in the City, but probably more important was that Craggs had a host of business and financial connections in the City going back to his days as an army clothing contractor. (fn. 6) Little direct evidence for Craggs's role as 'minister for the City' has hitherto come to light, but one highly suggestive fragment exists among his few extant papers. (fn. 7) This is a memorandum entitled 'some heads relating to the common council'; it appears to come from the pen of Thomas Woodford, one of the most assiduous attenders at the club and an appointee to a post in the Customs at much the same time Craggs was named Postmaster. (fn. 8) In turn, what is proposed in the memorandum is the compilation of a list of all Londoners (and especially freemen) who held places in the Excise, Stamp, Leather, Navy, Ordnance 'and other offices'—a scheme that re sembles the list made up by the club in 1715 of 'expedients to be used in the election of Common Councilmen' (76).
It is not necessary, however, to rely on indirect evidence to establish Craggs's links with the club. In the first place, Craggs attended some twenty meetings of the club, beginning in November 1715, and even earlier he entertained the club at a dinner (54). In the second place, it was from Craggs that the club received £1,000 towards the expenses of the 1715 Common Council election and £700 for the 1716 expenses (88, 95, 133, 140). Craggs's disbursements, in all likelihood, were known to and authorised by his colleagues in the ministry. The sums he advanced were unlikely to have come from his own pocket, London was of sufficient importance to account for the ministry's interest in and support for the City Whigs, and contemporary observers noted an especial interest on the ministry's part in the December 1715 election of Common Councilmen. Thus, the young Dudley Ryder recorded in his diary that it was said that 'my Lord Townshend and Secretary Stanhope came . . . into the City about the choice of common council and went among the dissenters and chief of the Whigs'. (fn. 9)
The reason for the ministry's unusually great interest in the choice of the Common Council can be briefly indicated. Since the civil wars, conflict between the Common Council and the Aldermen had been intermittent, and in the dispute over the statute of 1690 restoring the City's charter and in the quarrels over controverted elections during the last years of Anne's reign, the Aldermen's use of their authority had become a partisan issue. In both controversies, Whig majorities on the aldermanic bench had been pitted against Tory majorities on the Common Council, and the outcome of the second clash was Common Council's passage of an act to simplify the procedure for choosing Aldermen—an act which had the effect of reducing the bench's power in that process. Since 1689, the Whigs for the most part had been able to maintain a majority among the Aldermen, but their strength on the Common Council had fluctuated considerably. In 1714, of the 158 Common Councilmen (about two-thirds of the total of 234) whose partisan leanings can be ascertained, 104 (66 per cent) were Tories and only fifty-four (34 per cent) were Whigs. Furthermore, though the Whigs easily carried the parliamentary election for the City in January 1715, only seventy of the new Common Council elected in December 1714 can be identified as Whigs (38 per cent) as against 113 Tories (62 per cent). (fn. 10)
Now, Tory control of the Common Council was, at the least, a source of discomfort: it could frustrate the activities of the City's standing committees (composed of both Aldermen and Common Councilmen); it might also encourage the renewed pursuit of the long-standing grievances of the Common Council against aldermanic prerogatives. At the worst, Tory predominance on the Common Council gave them a base to organise a campaign to undo the Whigs' majority on the aldermanic bench by further electoral reforms and also a platform from which to challenge the ministry's claim to speak for the realm. To avert these dangers and to join a Whig majority on the Common Council with the Whig preponderance among the Aldermen and on the newly-revamped lieutenancy was, then, the joint aim of the City Whigs and the ministry.
As the club's minutes indicate, the Whigs did not succeed in their objective either in 1715 or in 1716. A month before the elections were to be held on St Thomas's Day 1715, the minutes include 'a computation of the Whigs . . . and the Tories . . . which may be elected in the next Common Council' (82). The Whigs, it was reckoned, might hope for 111 of the 234 seats. On the club's assessment, the outcome was reasonably close to the forecast: some 100 Whigs were returned (47 per cent of the members whose partisan inclinations were identifiable) along with 114 Tories (53 per cent) and twenty men designated as doubtful (113). However, the club's analysis was rather more favourable to the Whigs than that published in the Post Boy: this detailed report (146-8) gives a total of ninety-five Whigs (42 per cent), 132 Tories (58 per cent) and seven uncertain.
The Post Boy's tabulation differs from the club's computation in another respect. The club's computation was by ward only, while the newspaper's was by individual, and so it is not possible to be sure which individuals were assessed differently. However, it would appear that sixteen of the eighteen additional Tories listed by the Post Boy were reckoned as uncertain by the club, that three accounted Whigs by the club were designated uncertain by the newspaper and that another two were listed as Tories.
Despite these divergences over individuals, it is apparent on either reckoning that the Whigs failed in December 1715 to achieve their expected total of 111, much less a majority. Never the less, the club began, almost as soon as the results were in, to mount a campaign to gain the selection of Whigs and moderate Tories to the key City standing committees—one for City lands, another to direct the Irish Society. Lists of nominees were prepared, arrangements were made to lobby Tory Common Councilmen thought to be susceptible to personal or official influences, and already in early February 1716 it was noted that seven Tories had been 'made good' and that two more had promised to absent themselves at the crucial May meeting (109). But again, the Whigs were unsuccessful. Of the twelve Common Councilmen the club sought to place on the committee for City lands, only three (all incumbents) were chosen. Similarly, only eight of the Club's nominees for the eighteen councilmanic seats on the committee for the Irish Society were selected, and six of these were incumbents. (fn. 11)
These setbacks did not, it is true, deter the club from making a new effort in anticipation of the December 1716 election. During the six weeks before the election, the club met frequently and organised canvassing in almost half the wards. However, as the returns came in, it was the Tories who claimed victory: the Weekly Packet informed its readers 'it is computed the High Church have gain'd a greater Majority by thirty this year, than they did the last'. (fn. 12) Such Tory claims must be received with caution; so large an increase in their majority would have required that the Tories gain fifteen additional seats from the Whigs, and all told only thirty-three new members were chosen. Of the 201 incumbents returned, seventy-nine (41 per cent) can be identified as Whigs, 115 as Tories (59 per cent) and seven as uncertain. Thus, incumbent Whigs and Tories would seem to have fared almost equally well, and Tory claims of an increased majority can not be substantiated. Even so, the Whigs can hardly have done more than hold their own, for all the club's efforts as well as the £700 advanced by Craggs.
Whether the club, despite this new defeat, continued to function after Le Gros's translation to the Bank is unclear. But in any case, the club's extant record reveals much about the state of London politics during the early years of George I's reign and also draws attention to several notable features of national political life at this juncture.
To begin with, the lists of 'disaffected persons' for five City wards that are preserved in the minutes can be compared with the lists of 'popular protestors' in and about the City that have been compiled by Professor Nicholas Rogers. Surprisingly, none of the individuals named in the club's minutes can be traced in the judicial records of the City, Westminster or Middlesex. (fn. 13) Granted, the club's lists cover only a portion of the City, but it is also likely that the relative prominence, or at least reasonable prosperity, of many of those listed by the club is relevant to any explanation. Among the 190 individuals named, at least twenty-three were former, current, or future Common Councilmen, not to mention two senior officials of the Navy Board. A substantial proportion of those whose occupation is specified seem to have been men of some substance, ranging from goldsmiths, vintners and grocers to barbers, coffeemen and victuallers. Perhaps, then, the club members listed a stratum or several strata of disaffected individuals in those five City wards socially distinct from, though politically akin to, the rioters and Jacobite blasphemers whose names figure in the judicial records.
It is easier to demonstrate that the club's minutes isolate a cadre of Whig activists within the City. Some eighty-seven men are recorded as attending at least one of the club's ninety-one meetings, with twentyeight attending only once and an additional twenty-three attending no more than four times. Of the thirty-six present at five or more meetings, no less than sixteen were serving Common Councilmen and two were sitting Aldermen; six others had been or were to be elected to the Common Council. Furthermore, four of the thirty-six were sitting Members of Parliament. Nor were the less frequent attenders less substantial men: six were sitting Aldermen (including the Lord Mayor), three others were serving as M.P.s, and at least fourteen more were Common Councilmen. The club's members, then, included many of the leading City Whigs; among them, the more active members were distinguished chiefly by their zeal to further the Whig cause.
Yet, zeal was not enough, even when reinforced by systematic organisation and ministerial subsidies. The nature of the club's electoral preparations and the results of its analysis of election returns help to explain why. Professor Rogers has already shown how disaffected to the Whigs and to the government popular feeling in the metropolis was during George I's first years on the throne. Organised Jacobitism might be in decline, but there was little love for the Whigs, especially among 'the petty tradesmen and craftsmen of the industrial suburbs' who were 'the main sources of disaffection'. (fn. 14) Perhaps, the disenchantment of the less prosperous with the Whigs was not quite so novel a phenomenon as Professor Rogers's account might appear to suggest. Already in William III's reign, the Whigs had the upper hand in the wards within the City's walls with the highest proportions of ratepayers at the upper end of the assessment scale (the 'inner city'), while the Tories fared better among the poorer wards within the walls (the 'middle city'). (fn. 15) Yet, in the 1690s the correlation between the social character and the political complexion of the City wards was only partial; the wards outside the walls ('without walls'), though they contained a lower proportion of highly-assessed ratepayers than both Whig and Tory wards within the walls, inclined to the Whigs. The change by 1715 is marked. In 1715, as in 1693, the Whigs won ninety-four seats in the 'inner' and 'middle city' combined, but in the wards 'without walls' the Tories captured thirty-one seats in 1715 as compared to seven in 1693. In this fashion, a Whig majority in 1693 of twenty-one (leaving aside twentyseven Common Councilmen whose allegiances are uncertain) was transformed in 1715 into a Tory majority of nearly forty (excluding seven uncertain members). Without pollbooks, it is impossible to argue convincingly from constituency level results to the supposed behaviour of particular types of voters in those constituencies, and the difficulties are heightened by the likelihood that many of the disaffected craftsmen and traders in the outer wards were not freemen. None the less, it is suggestive that in those wards where Rogers's analysis would indicate the most antiWhig sentiment, the Tories had the advantage in 1715, though not in 1693. Moreover, it is noteworthy that in 1715 the Whigs, though bested in the 'middle city', did better in those wards than they had earlier, collecting a total of thirty seats in 1715 as compared to twenty in 1693. Thus, in 1715, the correlation between social character and political complexion was unqualified: the Whigs did best in the wealthy inner wards, less well in the other inner wards, and least well in the populous wards outside the walls.
The changing configuration of the City's electoral geography also has implications for national politics, attesting to that sea change undergone by the Whigs since the days of the first Earl of Shaftesbury, the Green Ribbon Club, and the Exclusion Crisis. From the early 1690s onwards, the Whigs had more and more become identified as the party of the Court and the established order. This transition can be detected in the club's attitude towards allowing 'unfreemen' the vote in Common Council elections. In 1692, it was the Whigs, with Major John Wildman (once a Leveller) in the lead, who pushed through the Common Council an act barring nonfreemen from voting, at least partly on the grounds of preserving the traditional privileges of the freemen. But by 1715, the members of the club computed that a reversal of this act would, on balance, be to the Whigs' advantage, especially in the 'inner city' (40). Their reasoning is not spelled out in the minutes; they may have arrived at this conclusion out of a realisation that many of the well-to-do merchants and traders (men likely to support Whig candidates) were no longer troubling to become freemen. This, admittedly, is little more than a guess. What is clear is that the club was concentrating on strengthening the Whigs' position in the wards within the walls and that the members could see little to be gained by contesting most of the outer wards whether on a freeman franchise or upon some less exclusive one (126 and ff.). (fn. 16)
The club's activities, coupled with the setbacks to its efforts in 1715 and again in 1716, also serve to underline the relatively insecure basis of the Whig ascendancy in the early years of George I's reign. Although the Whigs won a clear victory in the first general election of the reign, not least in the City where the Whig candidates polled nearly 55 per cent of all votes cast, the Tories retained a majority on the Common Council through the 1714, 1715 and 1716 elections. And as London was to remain a thorn in the side of the Whig ministry even after Walpole gained power, so the larger parliamentary boroughs (those with 1,000 voters or more) were at least as likely to return anti-ministerialists as they were supporters of Walpole or the Pelhams.
In conclusion, it may be useful to stress the uniqueness of the club's minutes. On the one hand, they reveal an unprecedented degree of partisan organisation, unknown at any other time in London during the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, unknown, too, in any other constituency during this period. On the other hand, had not this record survived, it is unlikely that the activities of the club would have been discernible. Granted, contemporary accounts remark on the unusual 'endeavours' made by the City Whigs during the weeks before the election of December 1715 and also upon the involvement of some of the ministers in this campaign, yet these reports are endowed with much added meaning by a reading of the club's minutes. (fn. 17) Possibly, such an elaborate organisational effort could only have been mounted in London—thanks to the wealth and political sophistication of its elite and also to the City's traditional importance in ministerial eyes. But it is also possible that similar clubs or caucuses may have been active in Bristol, Norwich, or other major provincial towns where Whig-Tory animosities had long run high and that their records have either failed to survive or remain to be studied. (fn. 18)
Whether the London Whig club of 1714-17 was unique, the significance of its minutes is beyond doubt. Their chief usefulness is in furthering an understanding of the complex, and largely unwritten political history of the City; in addition, the club's linkage with the ministry and the continuing strength of the Tories within the City also cast light on the national political scene. It might be wished that the record was fuller and that the puzzles of the club's origin and apparent demise could be resolved. But within their limits, David Le Gros's orderly entries are quite clear.
Thus, in preparing this text for publication, it has not been necessary to adopt elaborate editorial conventions. Spelling, capitalisation and punctuation have been modernised, and the spelling of frequently recurring surnames has been standardised. Most abbreviations have been expanded, and all dates have been rendered in new style. Scribal corrections have been passed over in silence, while marginal notations have been incorporated in the text and printed in italic. Editorial interpolations have been placed within square brackets. In a few instances, material has been re-arranged for more economical presentation. The Index contains entries for persons, places and subjects.