The eighteenth century: Politics and military affairs

Pages 240-245

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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Politics and Military Affairs

For the first twenty-two years of the 18th century one of the city's two parliamentary seats was filled by one man, Sir William Robinson. (fn. 1) He might be called the typical city representative, for, with certain intermissions, men of his kind were returned throughout the century, often without special regard to their political affiliations. (fn. 2) Robinson represented not the great territorial interests which dominate the parliaments of the middle and later decades, but the lesser, local proprietors with specifically city ties. He was a nephew of Metcalf Robinson, twice M.P. in the 17th century; in 1698 he was elected alderman and in 1700 lord mayor. The family was of merchant stock; his ancestor of the same name had been twice lord mayor and twice M.P. for the city in the later 16th century. (fn. 3) His estate was at Newby-upon-Swale (N.R.) but he had property in Clifton and a town house—now standing on the corner of St. Leonard's Place—on lease from the corporation.

The three men who served with Robinson between 1700 and 1713 were of not dissimilar background. Edward Thompson, a merchant and brother of Sir Henry Thompson (lord mayor 1663), had served the city as lord mayor in 1683 and as M.P. in 1688 before he was again elected in 1700. He died in the following year and was succeeded by Tobias Jenkins who in that year and again in 1720 was lord mayor and who had already been M.P. from 1695 to 1700. He, too, had strong local connexions. In 1705 he was replaced by his kinsman, Robert Benson (1676-1731), later Lord Bingley. Although Benson is said to have begun life as a whig he later became an active tory placeman and friend of Lord Dartmouth, and his family was to represent the tory interest in York for twenty years between 1742 and 1761. Benson was lord mayor in 1707. The owner of a considerable fortune, he built Bramham Park (W.R.) after 1713 and it was here that the Fox Lane family was established by the marriage of his daughter, Harriet, with George Fox.

None of the elections that had returned these men had been contested. So far as the meagre records show, the city was politically quiet for the first twelve years of the century. Ramillies and the Netherlands campaign were celebrated by a thanksgiving day with 'illuminations' on Pavement; May Day 1707 was chosen as a thanksgiving day for the Treaty of Union and an address was sent to the queen. (fn. 4) But in 1713 three candidates, Robinson, Jenkins, and Robert Fairfax, put up, the last of them the grandson of the besieger of York in 1644, a retired admiral and a whig. (fn. 5) Supported, it was said, by the minster whigs and by 'partial proceedings' by the mayor and his officers, Fairfax defeated Jenkins by a few votes. He lasted only a year. In 1714 Jenkins's supporters saw to it that some 400 new freemen were enrolled and he was duly elected; Robinson was reelected on each occasion. The influx of new freemen did not go unquestioned. A com mittee of inquiry was appointed in October 1714 and in the succeeding months ordered all those who had obtained their freedom fraudulently to come before it. The fact that those who accepted disfranchisement were not proceeded against and received their money back suggests that Jenkins's allegation of corruption in the corporation was not unfounded. (fn. 6)

The failure of the rebellion of 1715 was well received in the corporation; £40 was granted out of the common chamber for festivities and a congratulatory address, of strong anti-Jacobite tone, was sent to the king. (fn. 7) Whatever the strength of papist sympathy in the city, it was not to be found in official quarters.

In 1721 the city prepared for another election. In February of that year the house issued new regulations for taking up freedom: freemen were only to be admitted at certain hours; their motives and the source of their entrance money were to be examined, and if they were seeking admission only 'to serve a turn at the next election' they were not to be admitted; anyone who assisted in enfranchisement for political purposes was 'an enemy to the city'. (fn. 8) How far the instructions were more than a gesture towards propriety it is hard to say; they were disregarded and some 300 extra freemen admitted in the following year helped to bring in the two whig candidates, Sir William Milner and Edward Thompson (see Table 3). Milner was the son of a Leeds cloth merchant with an estate near Tadcaster; Thompson, though of the same family as the member in 1700, was a figure in national rather than local politics. Their opponent, who polled only 300 votes fewer than Thompson, (fn. 9) was Sir Tancred Robinson, second son of the former member, twice lord mayor and a much-respected citizen. The results perhaps indicate that but for the purchase of the 300 extra votes, the city would have elected, as it was wont to do, a 'corporation candidate'.

Milner and Thompson, however, were re-elected without a contest in 1727 and remained city members for another seven years. Now, as at all times, the city was only anxious to keep out of trouble and improve trade. (fn. 10) George II was acclaimed with great enthusiasm and a rather more expensive feast than had been given on his father's accession, and the corporation were careful to see that notice of their loyalty and munificence appeared in the London papers. (fn. 11) A year later the city acquired full-length portraits of the king and queen. (fn. 12)

In 1734 a third candidate was introduced, Sir John Lister Kaye, a tory. Three days before the election Milner withdrew and, says Drake, 'to the eternal honour of the citizens of York [Kaye] was sent for by them and elected without the least expense to him, but that of purchasing his freedom and paying the necessary fines to the city'. (fn. 13) Nevertheless, 300 or so freemen had been newly enrolled and Milner was perhaps accepting the inevitable. The still strong tory element in the corporation had chosen its own member and restored the equilibrium that was most favoured. Kaye was made lord mayor in 1737; appropriately enough, a proposal that his portrait should be hung in the Mansion House came from the foreman of the commons, John Mayer, himself mayor in 1742 and 1762.

Seven years later the corporation made some attempt to oust the whig element altogether. There were four candidates, Thompson and Milner in the whig interest and Kaye and a new man, Godfrey Wentworth, in the tory. Wentworth, like Kaye, was a corporation man—fifteen years an alderman and lord mayor in 1759. Some 700 extra freemen were enfranchised in 1740 and 1741, but many must have been bought by the whig interest, for, in the event, Wentworth and Thompson were elected. (fn. 14) Tory strength in the corporation, however, was recovering from the reverse of 1722-34 and early in the following year the jubilation on the dismissal of Walpole was recorded in the Courant, (fn. 15) and the corporation, following a lead by London, sent instructions to its M.P.s. Wentworth was thanked for his constant attendance and behaviour in Parliament; of Thompson, it was hoped that his future conduct would be such as to deserve similar acknowledgement. Both members were to support any measures for maintaining the new spirit of liberty, for disabling pensioners, for reducing the number of placemen, for preventing electoral corruption and for restoring triennial elections. (fn. 16) Thompson's obstruction of the city's views did not last much longer. He died during that year, and, when Kaye refused to stand on grounds of health, George Fox was elected without a contest in Thompson's place. As has been said, Fox was Benson's son-in-law and with his election was re-established the tory interest of Bramham Park. He was made lord mayor in 1757.

Between his election and the next fell the '45. There was never any doubt of the main trend of city opinion. The rumours of a French and Jacobite invasion early in 1744 immediately brought a loyal address from the corporation. (fn. 17) When the rebellion came, no attempt was made to put the city in a posture of defence, but 'The Association', the independent anti-Jacobite body, was heavily subscribed to in all parts of the city. Among the largest subscriptions appear those of the mayor, the recorder, many of the aldermen, and the two M.P.s. (fn. 18) The rebellion passed the city by; the mayor feared for the safety of the city plate but was reassured by the house and promised indemnity if it should be stolen by the rebels; (fn. 19) the city's closest contact with Prince Charles's men seems to have been through the foolish antics of Dr. John Burton, the Jacobite accoucheur of the city, who chose this moment to visit his properties at Settle (W.R.) and probably met the rebels by accident. (fn. 20) By May of the following year the corporation was able to send congratulations to the king on Culloden and to invite Cumberland to accept the freedom of the city in a hundred-guinea gold box. (fn. 21) Cumberland accepted the offer but could not find time for the ceremony and it eventually took place late one night at the Treasurer's House where he stopped for a meal on his way south. (fn. 22) A meeting was called in September to discuss the disposal of the Association's funds which had not been used; just over a year later the house ordered a guinea to be sent to the postmaster at Penrith for his trouble in sending information during the rebellion; and the '45 perhaps finally faded out of memory in 1754 when two rebels' heads were surreptitiously removed from Micklegate Bar. (fn. 23)

In the meantime, at the election of 1747, Wentworth had retired and was replaced by William Thornton. Thornton, the son of a Sir William Thornton of York, had raised a company of foot in the '45, had been a Colonel of the Yorkshire Blues and was reputedly a whig. What party in the city pressed him forward is not known; only 50 or so freemen were admitted in that year above the normal number, possibly because the division of interest was made by prior arrangement. Henry Ibbotson of Leeds had at first joined Thornton's interest as another whig candidate but retired when Wentworth also agreed to stand down. Full of zeal, Thornton wrote to York in December asking for instructions; the corporation, surprised but pleased, replied that they had nothing specific to ask but that he should keep his eye on trade matters in general. (fn. 24)

The next election, that of 1754, was the first in which the influence of the Marquess of Rockingham was to be felt. The ground had already been prepared. In 1750 Rockingham forced his agent, Jerome Dring, into the office of clerk of the peace against corporation opposition; (fn. 25) in 1753, to supplement Rockingham patronage of the races and assemblies, the Rockingham Club was founded and thereafter met every few months to promote his interest in the city. (fn. 26) The first result of this influence was the election of a Rockinghamite, Sir John Armytage, in Thornton's place. There was no contest and no extra freemen were brought in but the ranks of Rockinghamite whiggery were there in force: Armytage canvassed the city in the company of Sir Rowland Winn of Nostell (W.R.), Sir George Savile, the county member from 1758, Thomas Place, the recorder, and Jacques Sterne, the precentor. The corporation had to be content with reelecting George Fox (by then known as Fox Lane) and through the alarms of the next few years tried to steer a safe and cautious course. In the spring of 1756 a message of affection was sent to the king 'in this important crisis', by which presumably is meant the fall of Newcastle's ministry. The opening of the Seven Years War was proclaimed in the city in May and 10 guineas given to a regiment of foot quartered in the city to drink the king's health. At the end of 1757 Fox Lane, lord mayor as well as M.P. in that year, was asked to sit for a Mansion House portrait in recognition of his particular services in suppressing those who had voted against the operation of the Militia Act. (fn. 27)

Early in 1758 Pitt was given the freedom of the city and in July the corporation was able to congratulate the king on the successes in France. (fn. 28) But the war brought to the city a bitterly fought by-election. In September Sir John Armytage was killed on the coast of France and William Thornton, now backed by Rockingham, was nominated in his place. Robert Fox Lane, son of the sitting member, then presented himself. Negotiations between the candidates were conducted by the mayor and some of the aldermen and Fox Lane agreed to stand down so long as Thornton would not oppose the choice of him or his father at the next general election. Thornton agreed but Fox Lane broke the agreement and stood. Some 500 extra new freemen were brought in, and Thornton, after his election, spoke of 'such a torrent of bare-faced bribery and corruption' as had never before been seen; in fact Rockingham had spent £12,000 on the election. (fn. 29) A strong party of alderman had voted for Fox Lane but the mayor and several other ex-mayors and tories abstained.

The Rockingham interest was now dominant. At the next general election in 1761 Thornton stood down and Sir George Armytage, Sir John's brother, took his place. Robert Fox Lane, by connivance with Rockingham, stood for the 'opposition'. (fn. 30) In the same year the city celebrated George III's coronation in the usual way. (fn. 31) Seven years later Armytage stood down in favour of Charles Turner of Kirkleatham (N.R.), and Lane, although at first nominated, withdrew on grounds of ill health (he died that year) and Lord John Cavendish took his place. Both were Rockinghamites and by this time even the diehards in the corporation appear to have been won over, for all were Rockingham's guests at dinner on election day 'and everything was conducted with great unanimity'. (fn. 32) As well it might: Rockingham's influence was now receiving official approval for during the election month the corporation were thanking him for a contribution towards street improvement and for other unspecified help. (fn. 33)

In 1774 Cavendish and Turner were opposed by Martin Bladen Hawke whose supporters tried to swing the election by buying over freemen. Proper notice was not given of the claims for freedom and the apprentices rioted when they were refused. Hawke's intervention was unsuccessful, however, and the Rockinghamites were returned. Six years later they were returned again, this time without opposition and, it was said, 'without being put to any expense in balls or treats'; (fn. 34) the money in the hands of their committee was therefore given to the poor. This new attitude to elections was no doubt partly the work of the Yorkshire Association, formed in that year to organize independent opinion outside aristocratic influence. (fn. 35)

An independent and more radical attitude was, indeed, in the air. In January of 1780 the corporation adopted a county petition against 'the increasing and unconstitutional influence of the crown' and approved a plan of 'rigid frugality in the expenditure of public money'. (fn. 36) Six months later an address to the king congratulating him on the suppression of the Gordon riots and hoping for a speedy reunion of the American colonies with the Crown was disapproved by a majority of the house. (fn. 37) In March 1782 the corporation, assembled with the common council, congratulated Cavendish and Turner on their efforts in all these matters and a month later sent an address to the Crown deploring the American war. (fn. 38) In November a letter from the Yorkshire Association asked the corporation to support wide parliamentary reform: their M.P.s should support a Bill to abolish rotten boroughs and another to repeal the Septennial Act; forty-shilling copyholders should be enfranchised; elections in Scotland should be regulated. The corporation wrote to say they agreed with the whole programme and in the following January petitioned the House of Commons to remedy 'the inadequate representation of the people in Parliament'. (fn. 39)

The days of the Rockingham domination were over. The marquess himself died in 1782 and was buried in the minster. Turner died in 1783 and was replaced by Lord Galway, an Irish peer and hitherto the member for Pontefract. Galway was elected in the face of much opposition from the corporation, who had at first nominated Charles Slingsby Duncombe. (fn. 40) The opposition was not removed at the general election of the following year when Cavendish and Galway were joined by two contestants, Richard Slater Milnes of Fryston (W.R.) and Sir William Mordaunt Milner of Nun Appleton (W.R.), grandson of the member of 1722, lord mayor in 1787 and 1798 and a whig. The chief members of the corporation were behind Milner and Cavendish as might be expected, but Lord Galway and Milnes were elected. Six years later Galway was replaced by Milner and he and Milnes represented the city unopposed for the remainder of the century.

Opinion in the city for the last sixteen years of the century clearly changed. The corporation, after some initial hesitation, (fn. 41) seems to have aligned itself with the Prince of Wales and the parliamentary opposition. In 1784 congratulations were sent to Fox and Eden on their opposition to an increase in the window tax. (fn. 42) In 1788, no doubt under the influence of Wilberforce, who had become the county member in 1784, a petition was sent to Parliament calling for the abolition of the slave trade. (fn. 43) A year later the corporation had opportunity further to secure its credit at Carlton House: Prince George visited the races in the summer and in a splendid and costly ceremony was given his freedom of the city in the customary hundred-guinea gold box. (fn. 44) Two years later Fox was honoured in the same way, though in a fifty-guinea box, 'for upholding the principles of the Glorious Revolution'. (fn. 45) In this, at any rate, city opinion had changed not at all throughout the century.


  • 1. Unless otherwise stated, the account of the city's M.P.s is drawn from Pick's Edition of the State of the Poll (York, 1807); G. R. Park, Parl. Rep. Yorks. (Hull, 1886); W. W. Morrell, York and its M.P.s (extract from a handbk. for a Liberal bazaar, 1897, in York Pub. Libr.); R. H. Skaife, 'Civic Officials and Parl. Reps.', MS. in York Pub. Libr.
  • 2. C. Collyer, 'The Rockingham Connection and County Opinion', Leeds Phil. Soc. Proc. vii. 254.
  • 3. D.N.B. sub. Thomas Robinson.
  • 4. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 41, ff. 4, 8, 11, 12.
  • 5. D.N.B.
  • 6. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 41, ff. 143, 144.
  • 7. Ibid. ff. 162, 163.
  • 8. Ibid. 42, ff. 9-10.
  • 9. Milner, 1,421, Thompson 1,399, Robinson 1,076.
  • 10. See, e.g. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, ff. 10, 91, 150, 235; 43, pp. 58, 65; 44, p. 204; 45, pp. 220, 443.
  • 11. Ibid. 42, ff. 95-96, 100-1.
  • 12. Ibid. f. 110.
  • 13. Ebor. 359.
  • 14. Thompson 1,447, Wentworth 1,325, Kaye 1,315, Milner, 1,115; on the pretext of danger from rioters the corporation (as J.P.s) forbade meetings of more than 7 persons: York Corp. Rec. E/92, pp. 92-98.
  • 15. York Courant, 9 Feb. 1742.
  • 16. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, pp. 70, 84.
  • 17. Ibid. p. 132; Y.A.J. xxxviii. 71 sqq.
  • 18. B. M. Add. MS. 29694; the author is grateful to G. C. F. Forster, Esq. for information from this document.
  • 19. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, p. 186.
  • 20. York Georgian Soc. Ann. Rep. 1956-7, 15 sqq.; I. P. Pressly, A York Miscellany, 141 sqq.
  • 21. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, p. 198.
  • 22. Ibid. pp. 210, 213; and see Pressly, York Miscel. 134 sqq.
  • 23. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, pp. 217, 264, 451; Pressly, York Miscel. 139-40.
  • 24. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, p. 256.
  • 25. Ibid. pp. 326, 333; Leeds Phil. Soc. Proc. vii. 270.
  • 26. Leeds Phil. Soc. Proc. vii. 255.
  • 27. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 44, pp. 4-5, 6, 38.
  • 28. Ibid. pp. 43, 60-61.
  • 29. Leeds Phil. Soc. Proc. vii. 255; Thornton's connection with Rockingham was through George Savile rather than any liking for aristocratic patronage and his criticism may have included both sides.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 44, p. 130; York Courant, 22 and 29 Sept. 1761.
  • 32. Pick's State of the Poll, 60.
  • 33. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 44, p. 234
  • 34. Pick's State of the Poll, 61.
  • 35. Leeds Phil. Soc. Proc. vii. 272.
  • 36. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 44, pp. 472-4.
  • 37. Ibid. 45, p. 17.
  • 38. Ibid. pp. 84, 88.
  • 39. Ibid. pp. 110, 113.
  • 40. Ibid. 45, p. 142.
  • 41. Ibid. p. 159.
  • 42. Ibid. p. 172.
  • 43. Ibid. p. 283.
  • 44. Ibid. pp. 350, 355.
  • 45. Ibid. p. 419.