A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 6, Andersfield, Cannington, and North Petherton Hundreds (Bridgwater and Neighbouring Parishes). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1992.
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Bridgwater sent two burgesses to parliament (fn. 1) in 1295. Until 1328 the M.P.s' names indicate origins or residence outside the town, and fewer than half of them were mentioned in the borough records. In the fifty years after 1375, however, townsmen predominated. William Thomere, steward of the guild merchant and lieutenant of the Admiral of the West, (fn. 2) was returned at least 14 times 1377-1406, William Gascoigne and his son William at least 15 times 1406-29, and John Kedwelly, the town clerk, at least 7 times 1397- 1414. (fn. 3) Outsiders again served for the borough later in the 15th century: lawyers from the neighbourhood like William Dodesham (1442), Sir Thomas Tremayle (1472), and William Hody (1483), landowners like John Maunsel (1449, 1453), royal servants like Thomas Driffield (1449), James FitzJames (1467), and John Hymerford (1483). The most important townsman of the later 15th century was John Kendall, chosen at least five times from 1467 and the town's first mayor. (fn. 4)
During the 16th and earlier 17th century the town's recorder usually secured the senior seat for himself or his nominee. Baldwin Malet may have influenced the choice of Henry Thornton and Hugh Trotter, customs officials and local landowners, in 1529. Sir Thomas Dyer, a royal household official, sat in five parliaments between 1545 and 1559. (fn. 5) His colleague in 1559 was Robert Moleyns, mayor and controller of the port, who managed the passage of an Act for sealing local woollen cloths. (fn. 6) Alexander, Edward, and John Popham of Huntworth, Edward's son-in-law John Court, and possibly Nicholas Halswell of Goathurst were recorders returned in Elizabeth I's reign. (fn. 7)
Nicholas Halswell in 1603 and Edward Popham in 1623, 1625, and 1626 maintained the influence of two local families; Robert Warre, the second member in 1623, presumably owed his return to the recorder Roger Warre. (fn. 8) Sir Thomas Wroth, recorder 1628-62, was returned as M.P. in 1628, probably in 1644 on the death of his brother Sir Peter, and in 1656, 1659, and 1660; he was at times 'outrageously republican' but attended only one session of Charles I's trial. His colleague in 1628 was Sir Thomas Smythe, then aged 18, who failed to be elected in 1640 for what came to be the Short Parliament. He later replaced Edmund Wyndham, elected for the second parliament of 1640 but expelled as a monopolist, and was considered by the more radical politicians of the county as 'a serviceable good member'. (fn. 9)
From 1660 to 1708 elections were often hotly contested, the result both of uncertainty as to who had the franchise and of deep political and religious divisions within the community. The mayor and capital burgesses elected the members in 1660, 1661, 1669, and 1685, but in 1679, 1681, and 1689 the electorate was widened to those paying scot and lot, amounting in 1679 to c. 380 voters. John Tynte of Halswell in Goathurst, formerly a Cavalier colonel, was returned in 1661, beginning his family's long association with the borough, and on his death in 1669 there was a contest between Francis Rolle of Shapwick, a Presbyterian member of the Convention, and Peregrine Palmer of Fairfield. Palmer lost but was returned on petition, on the grounds that several of the 24 voters were disqualified for holding conventicles in their houses. (fn. 10) At the next election, in 1679, Sir Halswell Tynte, Rolle, Ralph Stawell of Cothelstone, and William Clarke of Sandford in Wembdon contested the borough, Stawell standing for the Court party backed by the officers of his local militia, who were all sworn as freemen for the election. Tynte was returned 'on all sides', presumably elected both by the mayor and capital burgesses and by the common burgesses, and returned under the borough seal with the 'assent and consent of the commonalty'. Rolle was chosen by the common burgesses and similarly returned under the mayor's signature. Stawell was chosen by the capital burgesses and returned in the name of the mayor and capital burgesses. Tynte was declared elected without further debate and Rolle later took the second seat, the common burgesses evidently being adjudged to have the franchise. (fn. 11) In 1681 Sir John Malet, the town's recorder and a strong exclusionist with nonconformist support, was returned with Tynte, (fn. 12) but Stawell undermined Malet's interest by persuading the corporation to surrender its charter in 1683. The resulting Tory majority chose as M.P. their new recorder, Sir Francis Warre, in 1685, but Halswell Tynte's local influence won him the other seat against Stawell's candidate. Warre and another Tory were returned for the borough in 1689. (fn. 13)
The election of the nonconformist Roger Hoar in 1695 and 1698 suggests that the Tories were not entirely successful, although Warre was returned again at a byelection after Hoar's death in 1699. In 1701 both members, George Balch and John Gilbert, were townsmen, but at the next three elections Balch shared the return with Sir Thomas Wroth and in 1708 with George Dodington. (fn. 14)
From then until 1753 two members of the Dodington family, with extensive interests in the port and customs, normally held one seat, a Tory country gentleman the other. Only three elections were contested. Dodington was returned with Nathaniel Palmer in 1710 and with Thomas Palmer in 1715. George Bubb Dodington sat with Palmer (by then recorder) in 1722, with Sir Halswell Tynte in 1727, and with Palmer again in 1734. (fn. 15) In 1726 John Poulett, Earl Poulett (d. 1743), and his associate Bernard Hutchins were elected freemen of the borough, (fn. 16) and in 1741 John's son Vere, probably with the support of Charles Seymour, earl of Egremont, successfully fought an election, the first of four Pouletts to sit for Bridgwater at intervals until 1806. Peregrine Poulett, elected in 1747, was succeeded in 1753 by Robert Balch, then of Nether Stowey but descended from Bridgwater merchants who had represented the borough in 1692-5 and 1701-10. Egremont's support continued until 1757. (fn. 17)
Elections were usually contentious in the later 18th century. There were c. 250 voters, although the members returned in 1768 claimed that the right still lay with the corporation. Most prospective candidates became freemen. John Perceval, earl of Egmont, elected freeman in 1736 'for his great merits and knowledge in antiquities and useful learning', won most votes both in 1754 and 1761, Dodington failing at the first and Balch at the second. In 1768 Benjamin Allen, a townsman, was returned top of the poll; John James Perceval, Viscount Perceval, Egmont's heir, was unseated in favour of Anne Poulett. Poulett and Allen were returned unopposed in 1774 and after a contest in 1780, but Allen was unseated in 1781 in favour of John Acland. (fn. 18) Charles James Fox, elected a freeman in 1780, stood at the same election, at the invitation of a local man, John Chubb, and representing opposition to Lord North. Fox himself took no part in the campaign, but the election of North as a freeman in 1782 was evidence of the continued strength of North's supporters in the town. (fn. 19) In 1784 Poulett and Alexander Hood succeeded against the combined opposition of Fox and Chubb, but in the following year Poulett died and was replaced by a supporter of Pitt. (fn. 20)
The Poulett family, holding the office of recorder, continued to manage the borough, but without complete success. Vere Poulett and John Langston, a London banker, were returned against the Egmont interest in 1790, and in 1796 and 1802 George Pocock, Earl Poulett's brotherin-law, and Jeffreys Allen, a local supporter of the government. Poulett and Langston won again in 1806, but later Poulett turned against his father, the earl, and in 1807 he was defeated by Pocock and William Thornton (later Astell), an East India Company director. The disaffected Poulett was supported by the duke of Buckingham and John Chubb. Pocock and Astell were returned again in 1812 and 1818 representing the Tory interest, (fn. 21) and Astell was returned at each election up to and including 1831. From 1820 he was accompanied by C. K. KemeysTynte of Halswell, who was returned until 1837 and then again from 1847 until his death in 1860. His fellow Liberal member from 1857 was Alexander Kinglake, the historian, who served as member until 1869. A Conservative elected top of the poll in 1865 was later unseated; a byelection in the following year returned another Conservative, George Patton, with a very slender majority against Walter Bagehot, and a few weeks later Patton lost the byelection following his appointment as a minister. The Liberal victor, (Sir) Philip Vanderbyl, and Kinglake were returned in 1868, but in the following year they were unseated and the town was disfranchised for bribery and corruption. (fn. 22) From 1885 one of the county divisions has been named after the town.