A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 8. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1963.
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'Newcastle-under-Lyme: Parliamentary representation', in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 8, (London, 1963) pp. 42-44. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol8/pp42-44 [accessed 1 March 2024]
One of the burghal privileges, not perhaps always valued as such in the early years, was that of electing two of their number as their representatives in Parliament. The first Newcastle burgesses are met with in the Parliament of 1354 and thereafter the names of those elected are fairly complete. (fn. 1) How or by whom elections were carried out in the later 14th century is unknown and it is noteworthy that the early minute books contain no references to burgess representatives. It may be significant that often during this period one of the two Newcastle members either was or had been the mayor or one of the bailiffs, which suggests nomination by the governing body of the borough. From the beginning of the 15th century it seems that at least one of the members was usually a nominee of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, (fn. 2) and that elections were controlled from Tutbury. (fn. 3) While the early representatives were burgesses living in or near the town, in time the desire of the local gentry for a seat in Parliament brought about a change in the character of the borough representation as can be seen in the elections to the later Tudor Parliaments. (fn. 4) Their ambitions in this respect sometimes conflicted with the wishes of the borough as happened in the case of the election to the Reformation Parliament (1529–36). In 1533 Thomas Bradshawe, Mayor of Newcastle, and his brethren complained to the Lord Chancellor that John Peassall of Eccleshall had contrived to get the sheriff to return him as one of the borough members, whereas Bradshawe maintained that Richard Robynson, the then mayor (1529–30), had been chosen 'by assent of the hoole commons of the seid towne'. (fn. 5) Another example of the intervention of a local magnate is provided by an entry in the borough minute books in 1596 to the effect that the mayor and capital burgesses had bestowed the freedom and burgessship of the borough upon Sir Walter Leveson for life and had elected him a parliamentary burgess, an election incidentally that began a parliamentary connexion between the borough and the Leveson family of Trentham which was to continue for two and a half centuries. (fn. 6)
During the Tudor and Stuart periods (fn. 7) the most significant aspect of the development of borough representation lies in the attempt to obtain electoral control, whole or partial, whether by a local influential family, by a great territorial magnate, or by the Crown itself. Representatives of the first category were the Bagnalls, the Chetwynds, the Levesons, the Mainwarings, and the Bowyers. Of the second, Queen Elizabeth's favourite, the Earl of Essex, lord lieutenant of the county 1588–1600, furnishes an example. Having been the chief promoter of the 1590 charter, the earl considered it reasonable to demand the nomination of one at least of the Newcastle members. (fn. 8) His interference in Staffordshire elections until his death in 1601 does not seem to have been so successful in Newcastle (fn. 9) as in other parts of the county, and indeed during the 16th and 17th centuries the burgesses showed a spirit of independence which at times proved too strong for those who wished to intermeddle in its parliamentary affairs. Even the Crown was not always successful in securing the acceptance of its nominees. When in 1605 Secretary Cecil, on the death of Sir John Bowyer, one of the sitting members, asked Ralph Sneyd of Keele to influence the mayor and burgesses in the matter of filling the vacancy, the short reply he received was that the borough had already promised the election to Rowland Cotton, who was in fact elected. (fn. 10)
The first contested election occurred in 1624 and was followed by a petition to the House of Commons by the defeated candidate John Keeling. The report of the House on this petition is important for its declaration first that the custom of vesting the right of election in the mayor, two bailiffs, aldermen, and capital burgesses was not prescriptive, and secondly that in the time of Edward IV all the burgesses had the right of election. (fn. 11) As a consequence, thereafter the right of the general body of burgesses to take part in parliamentary elections went unchallenged. (fn. 12)
During the Interregnum the representation of Newcastle fluctuated. In the Parliament of 1653 no representative of the borough was summoned to attend, while as a result of the changes made by the Instrument of Government Newcastle in the Parliaments of 1654–5 and 1656–8 was represented by one member only. (fn. 13) The two-member basis was restored in the 1659 Parliament, and thereafter Newcastle continued to send two members to Parliament, until in 1885 its representation was reduced to one. (fn. 14)
With the election of William Leveson-Gower as one of the Newcastle members in 1675 begins the control of its parliamentary representation by the Leveson-Gower family which only came to an end in 1820. (fn. 15) One method noted in 1835 (fn. 16) by which this control was exercised was the lease of 60 cottages by the corporation at a nominal rent to Lord Gower, which enabled him to exercise great influence over the poorer freemen, by whom the cottages were principally occupied; also much of the Gower property in the borough was held by members of the borough council at very inadequate rents. The borough minute book attests the granting of a 21year lease of these cottages at an annual rental of ten guineas in September 1734. (fn. 17) At the election held in that year the tenants had 'disobliged' Lord Gower and on acquiring control of the cottages he ejected those who were opposed to him. (fn. 18) Ten years later the power of the corporation to make such a lease having been challenged, Lord Gower spent more than £600 in the resulting lawsuit in support of the corporation. In consideration thereof and of his lordship's having in 1743 erected a hospital for the reception of twenty poor widows, (fn. 19) the corporation granted him a new 99-year lease on the same terms as before. (fn. 20) In 1790, when an election petition was submitted by Thomas Fletcher (fn. 21) and Clement Kynnersley against the sitting members Sir Archibald Macdonald and John Leveson-Gower, it was stated in evidence that a great part of the borough was the property of the Marquess of Stafford, whose influence directed the choice of the electors; and that it was customary for the electors to live ten, fifteen, and twenty years in their respective houses without paying any rent. (fn. 22) The election in 1812 of Sir John F. F. Boughey, Bt., in opposition to the patron, marks the beginning of the decline of the Gower interest in the borough, and 'by 1826 the House of Trentham had retired politically from Newcastle'. (fn. 23)
Although the Gower influence in parliamentary elections during the 18th century was paramount, nevertheless the electors of Newcastle could on occasion make known to their representatives their opinions on political matters in the expectation that those opinions would be acted upon. In 1719, for example, Bryan Broughton, one of the Newcastle members, excusing himself for not voting for the Peerage Bill, wrote: 'So violent is the prejudice of the people here against the bill that should I venture to appear in favour of it, I must from that time disclaim all hopes of ever serving His Majesty in Parliamentary station again, in this county at least.' (fn. 24) Again, in 1742 the local electors decided to make representations to their members of Parliament, Baptist Leveson-Gower and Randle Wilbraham, 'for their instruction and in voting in national affairs and their conduct as our representatives', and in the same year a remonstrance was addressed to these same members 'setting forth our and other national grievances . . . in order to have such national grievances redressed'. (fn. 25)
The unreformed corporation, being committed to the support of the Gower interest, when that interest was on the wane in the early 19th century, attempted by manipulation of the franchise to arrest its decline. The method adopted was the creation of honorary burgesses who could be depended upon to vote for the Gower nominee. In December 1815 28 honorary burgesses were elected, in July 1816 12, while before the general election of 1818, when polling began on 18 June, 32 were created on 9 June and 10 added as late as 13 June. In fact, between the elections of 1815 and 1818 the corporation added 202 names to the electoral roll, more than 30 per cent. of the total poll in 1818. (fn. 26) These activities, however, did not pass unchallenged and the corporation found itself involved in the period 1827–32 in long and expensive litigation as a result of which the illegality of its electoral practices was established. (fn. 27) Even as late as 1841 the 'objectionable' long-standing practice 'of distributing money under the appellation of "Market Money", "Dinner Money" or some other local term to the poorer voters after the election' (fn. 28) still prevailed.
By the Reform Act of 1832 (fn. 29) the Newcastle constituency was defined as comprising the old borough and that part of the parish of Stoke-upon-Trent as was surrounded partly by the boundary of the old borough and partly by the boundary of Knutton township, i.e. the detached portion of Stoke which lay in the Pool Dam area. In 1885 the parliamentary borough was enlarged to include the parishes of Tunstall, Wolstanton, Chesterton, and Silverdale. (fn. 30) In 1901 the total electorate was 9,360, made up as follows: Newcastle 3,065 (including 586 freemen), Tunstall 2,760, Wolstanton 1,288, Chesterton 995, and Silverdale 1,252. (fn. 31)
For some years after the Reform Act (1832), Newcastle returned Conservatives to Parliament, but from about the middle of the century, one Conservative M.P. and one Liberal seems to have been the general pattern until the enlargement of the electorate in 1885. Thereafter the single member was usually a Liberal. From 1906 to 1942 J. C. Wedgwood (afterwards Lord Wedgwood) represented the borough uninterruptedly, first as a Liberal and from 1922 as a member of the Labour party, since when Labour members have continued to be returned until the present time. (fn. 32)