Gloucester, 1720-1835: Parliamentary representation

Pages 152-154

A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1988.

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Parliamentary Representation

Gloucester was one of the largest freemen boroughs, with between 1,500 and 1,850 people voting in the most fiercely contested elections of the period. (fn. 1) For that reason it was never for long subject to the control of any particular interest, though at one time or another most of the important political families of the county involved themselves in its politics, usually acting in concert with the city corporation. The corporation's influence at elections derived mainly from its power to create honorary freemen, a cause of much controversy, particularly at the contest of 1727 when it was claimed that 140 honorary freemen had been created in one day. That practice was inhibited by an Act of 1786, though the number of freemen continued to show a sharp increase of between 300 and 400 at times of contested elections, as the rival parties encouraged those eligible by patrimony or apprenticeship to register. (fn. 2) The corporation also exercised influence through its control of the city charities, particularly the almsmen's places. Its large holding of property seems to have had little relevance, as almost all was granted on long leases. The expense of contested elections was much increased by the cost of tracing and canvassing the large number of outvoters, Gloucester freemen living in other parts of the country: of the 1,579 freemen who voted in 1816, only 562 lived in the city.

At the start of the period the Tories held both city seats and party rivalry was strong. After the fiercely contested election of 1727 a more placid period followed, (fn. 3) the representation being shared between the Tories and the Whig-dominated corporation, acting in concert with local landowners. During the next 53 years three members of the Selwyn family of Matson, Charles Selwyn, his brother John (d. 1751), and John's son the wit and eccentric George Augustus Selwyn, sat for the city and were all elected to the bench of aldermen. The family's influence was said to result partly from the waterworks on Robins Wood Hill, which John Selwyn built for the city. The Selwyns also had the support of Philip Yorke, Lord Hardwicke, who owned the nearby Hardwicke estate and was recorder of the city 1734–64. The other seat was held by the Tory Benjamin Bathurst for most of the period 1727–54, but in 1741 he was ousted by Benjamin Hyett, of a prominent Gloucester family, who stood as a 'pure Tory', opposed to Bathurst's willingness to share the representation with the Whigs. Charles Barrow of Highgrove, Minsterworth, was elected as a Tory candidate in 1751, and for the next 30 years he agreed with the Selwyns and the corporation to share the representation; in 1761, however, a contest was caused by the appearance of another Tory candidate.

In 1780 there was a major realignment of interests. The movement for parliamentary reform, promoted by the Yorkshire Association, was supported by the leading Whigs of the county and city, who formed a local association at Gloucester. (fn. 4) The corporation committed itself to the reform programme by a vote in February 1780, (fn. 5) a move that involved withdrawing their support from George Selwyn, who held several sinecures and controlled the rotten borough of Ludgershall (Wilts.). (fn. 6) At the general election in September the corporation backed a new candidate, John Webb of Cote House, Westbury on Trym, and also endorsed Charles Barrow, who had been active in the county association; (fn. 7) Selwyn withdrew from the contest in the face of much local hostility. The corporation's attitude was dictated partly by the increasing influence in its affairs of one of the leading aristocratic supporters of reform, (fn. 8) Charles Howard, earl of Surrey, owner of the nearby Llanthony manor estate. (fn. 9) Howard, who became duke of Norfolk in 1786, remained a major influence in city politics until his death in 1815. He was elected an alderman in 1781 and served four terms as mayor, though the duties were usually performed by a deputy; (fn. 10) he was recorder of the city from 1792 to 1811 when he became its high steward. (fn. 11)

In 1789, when Charles Barrow died after representing the city for 38 years, the duke of Norfolk and the corporation attempted to secure the second seat, but their candidate, the duke's nephew Henry Howard, was opposed by the attorney John Pitt, the former steward of Lord Hardwicke but now a prominent opponent of the corporation in city affairs. After a fierce contest, in which the poll was kept open for 15 days, Pitt won by a single vote. He claimed that he had spent £10,000 and his opponents £20,000. Pitt's influence derived partly from a considerable holding of property in the northern suburbs of the city, built up by purchase, mainly during the 1760s; (fn. 12) he claimed to have 148 tenants in the city in 1768. Following the expensive 1789 election, Pitt and the Whigs agreed to share the representation and there were no more contests until Pitt's death in 1805. When John Webb died in 1795 Henry Howard (later Lord Henry Howard-Molyneux-Howard) replaced him as the Whig member and remained M.P. until 1818.

At the byelection of 1805 the banker Robert Morris of Barnwood Court was elected with the support of both the Pitt family and the Whigs, defeating an attempt by the duke of Beaufort to extend his influence into the city. After 1815 the duke of Norfolk was replaced as the principal Whig patron by Sir Berkeley William Guise, owner of the neighbouring Highnam estate and an alderman of the city since 1810. (fn. 13) After Robert Morris's death in 1816 his seat was taken by Edward Webb, Guise's brother-in-law and son of the former M.P. John Webb, who defeated Robert Bransby Cooper, another Tory candidate put forward by the duke of Beaufort. In 1818, however, Cooper was elected with Webb, when Maurice Frederick Berkeley, a son of the 5th earl of Berkeley, was an unsuccesful second Whig candidate.

In the 1820s another local independent candidate opposed to the influence of the county families emerged. The barrister John Phillpotts assiduously nursed the consistuency, promoting the building of Worcester Street and the new cattle market. (fn. 14) He and Edward Webb, both supporting parliamentary reform, defeated Cooper in 1830, but in 1831 Webb and M. F. Berkeley joined forces against him, backed by the Berkeley, Guise, and corporation interests. At the election following the 1832 Reform Act, however, Phillpotts was returned again with Webb.

The Reform Act, while extending the franchise to the £10 householders, disfranchised all freemen living more than seven miles from the city, and restricted the voting rights of future freemen to those qualifying by birth or apprenticeship. (fn. 15) At the same time the parliamentary borough was enlarged to include an additional part of Barton Street and the newly developed Spa by extending the boundary to the tramway and the later Parkend Road on the east and to the Sud brook on the south. (fn. 16) The disfranchisement of the large number of outvoters, however, brought about a net reduction in the total electorate: 1,600 people voted at the 1830 election and 1,197 (out of 1,300 on the new register) at that of 1832.


  • 1. This section is based on J. A. Cannon, 'Parl. Representation of City of Glouc. (1727–90)', Trans. B.G.A.S. lxxviii. 137–52; G. L. Goodman, 'Pre-Reform Elections in Glouc. City, 1789–1831', ibid. lxxxiv. 141–60; Williams, Parl. Hist. of Glos. 207–15.
  • 2. Parl. Representation: Voters Polled and Number of Freemen, H.C. 112, p. 37 (1831–2), xxvi.
  • 3. Clark, 'Civic Leaders of Glouc.', 328.
  • 4. Trans. B.G.A.S. lxxv. 171–91.
  • 5. G.B.R., B 3/11, ff. 266v.–7.
  • 6. D.N.B.
  • 7. Trans. B.G.A.S. lxxv. 180.
  • 8. I. R. Christie, Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform (1962), 194, 199.
  • 9. Below, Outlying Hamlets, man.
  • 10. G.B.R., B 3/11, ff. 293v., 349; 12, f. 292v.; 13, ff. 80, 177.
  • 11. Ibid. 12, f. 166; 13, f. 105v.
  • 12. Glos. R.O., D 2078, Goodrich fam., sched. of deeds 1849.
  • 13. G.B.R., B 3/13, f. 84v.
  • 14. Counsel, Glouc. 176, 192; below, Plate 20.
  • 15. Representation of the People Act, 2 & 3 Wm. IV, c. 45, ss. 27, 32.
  • 16. Parl. Boundaries Act, 2 & 3 Wm. IV, c. 64, sched. (0); Parl. Representation: Boundary Rep. Pt. 1, H.C. 141, p. 191 (1831–2), xxxviii.