Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the burgage-holders

Number of voters:

102 in 16811


  Double return. SAVILE and LOWTHER declared elected, 16 May 1660
11 Apr. 1661(SIR) JOHN DAWNAY
18 Feb. 1679(SIR) JOHN DAWNAY
 [?John] Ramsden
27 Aug. 1679(SIR) JOHN DAWNAY
 [?John] Ramsden
16 Feb. 1681(SIR) JOHN DAWNAY
 Sir John Kaye, Bt.
26 Mar. 1685(Sir) JOHN DAWNAY (Visct. Downe)
8 Jan. 1689(Sir) JOHN DAWNAY (Visct. Downe)

Main Article

Despite the resolution of the Commons in 1624 awarding the franchise at Pontefract to the inhabitant householders, in practice it was restricted to those who occupied recognized ‘burgage land’. The corporation, consisting of the mayor, who acted as returning officer, 12 ‘comburgesses’ or aldermen, and the recorder, was unable to exercise an effective interest in this period, and all the candidates were West Riding gentry except Patience Ward, a younger son of the most numerous and powerful family in the town who had made good as a London merchant. The dominant interest was exercised by John Dawnay, who represented the borough in every Parliament of the period except the first, when he sat for Yorkshire; in 1685 and 1689 his nephew Sir Thomas Yarburgh occupied the second seat. Sir George Savile (later the great Lord Halifax) had no property interest in the borough until his agents bought him a single burgage on the eve of the 1660 election; the deference which his family and his own intellectual qualities could command was reduced by his refined distaste for electioneering and his long absences from the neighbourhood. William Lowther, the founder of the Swillington branch of the family, ‘whom nothing but merit can serve’ established an independent interest at the outset of the period.2

At the general election of 1660 the two Royalists, Savile and Lowther, originally stood separately, presumably because both were of doubtful eligibility under the Long Parliament ordinance. The case against Lowther was stronger, although he had secured exemption from the decimation tax; but Savile’s father had been a prominent Cavalier commander, and he would have been hard put to it to point to any redeeming action of ‘good affection towards Parliament’. However the record of his partner, the recorder John Hewley, who was defending the seat he had won in 1659, more than atoned for these deficiencies, though not in the eyes of the electorate: ‘the country are generally against all swordsmen and state purchasers, both which is objected against Mr Hewley’. If Lowther was chiefly concerned to defeat Hewley, others were anxious to eliminate Savile. Colonel John Bright, who had sat for the West Riding in 1654, soon withdrew in favour of Lionel Copley, who proclaimed that Savile’s father ‘had wronged him many thousands, with some other word that was apprehended reflective’. Dawnay, after some hesitation, decided to back Hewley as well as Savile, once his own return for the county was assured. But on 31 Mar. Savile’s agent reported:

I am certainly informed Mr Lowther hath been at Pontefract on Wednesday last, and gives out he hath a great encouragement to out him [Hewley]. ... Immediately after I had acquainted them with your resolution for standing for them, there was about 60 cried your name, and there is not 18 more, and ’tis believed all those will be of the same mind when we meet on Tuesday next.

A reversal of alliances soon followed; and despite ‘his endeavours to ingratiate himself with the townsmen’ Hewley had ‘more cause every day to suspect his success’. Savile’s agent commented: ‘Never any in his place would endeavour or did stand for burgess if any gentleman of quality appeared; and it was alleged that Mr Hewley should more value the good of the town than, by preferring himself, to hinder their benefit and interest in such persons’. Before the poll was taken he insisted that the ordinance on qualifications should be read at the town cross and again in the hall. The cry was clearly for Savile and Lowther, and this was confirmed by the poll. But Hewley demanded, and obtained, a double return. The two Royalists were said to be elected by the major part of the burgesses ‘and divers others’; their indenture bore 21 signatures and the corporation seal. Hewley and Copley claimed to be elected only by the burgesses, 16 of whom signed, including the mayor. On 21 Apr. Savile was informed:

Hewley hath procured another indenture wherein he is joined with you, which is delivered to the sheriff and will be certified with the others, and by that he intends to be more certain to be received before Mr Copley.

Hewley, with incredible obstinacy, pursued his case against Lowther solely on the Long Parliament ordinance. Three of Lowther’s supporters wrote to him on 7 May:

We humbly conceive that we are not any of us guilty of any indirect practice that may render us incapable of electing or yourself of being elected. Believe it, sir, from us; the burgesses here were generally as free to consent as we were to propose. Your adversaries may be barking, but they have not teeth to bite.

There could indeed be only one outcome; on 16 May Edward Turnor reported from the elections committee that upon examination it appeared that Savile and Lowther had the greatest number of voices, and the Commons declared them duly elected. ‘The charge proved to be great’, wrote Savile’s agent, ‘which Mr Lowther contributed to with much freeness, his share being £150, and his treating and the company he brought, being above 200, could not stand him in less than £20 or £30 more’. Pontefract indeed had reason to congratulate itself on this election, for, over and above this generosity, few boroughs were able to boast of so outstanding a pair of Members in the Convention.3

Savile never stood again, but Lowther offered himself for re-election. Dawnay stepped down from the county, but he was by no means sure of success if a Wentworth candidate should appear in a borough that had once enjoyed Strafford’s patronage. The queen mother regained the honour of Pontefract at the Restoration, and this was one of the Yorkshire boroughs where she claimed an interest. On 16 Mar. 1661 Savile was told:

At Pontefract it stands thus. On Thursday last Sir John Dawnay and Mr Lowther was there and had assurance for their only election. But an hour after they were parted one from my Lord Newcastle with the queen’s letters appeared on the behalf of Sir Peter Ball, whom she hath very considerable in trust and command, which put the townspeople upon a new deliberation, but what is the issue I yet know not.

It is not known whether Ball, a Devonian, went to the poll; but the mayor was one of Lowther’s principal supporters, and returned him with Dawnay. In 1662 the commissioners for corporations ejected six aldermen. Dissent remained strong in the borough, and the new charter of 1676, requiring crown approval for the recorder and town clerk, does not seem to have diminished its influence.4

Dawnay went into opposition under Danby, and Lowther retired on the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament, probably on grounds of age. In February 1679 the junior seat was contested by Ward and ‘Mr Ramsden’, presumably one of the Byrom Hall family which had provided a Member for the borough before the Civil War. Ward was successful, and, like Dawnay, voted for exclusion. Ramsden stood again in August against Ward, but he left the announcement of his candidature till barely a week before the election, and the sitting Members were re-elected, though under Halifax’s influence Dawnay went over to the Court in the second Exclusion Parliament. In 1681 Sir John Kaye challenged Ward on behalf of the court party. He wrote to Sir John Reresby on 11 Feb. that his agents, after canvassing all the burgage-holders, ‘yesterday sent me a note of subscriptions of the majority of voices by a considerable number, which they say will stand to their promises, if there be any faith in men’. Despite these assurances Kaye was defeated, writing philosophically after the election:

In this uncertain world we must expect to meet with disappointments; and yesterday I had one through the partiality of a knave and a fool, and the revolting of 14 of the burghers who the night before were with me, ... but it seems were yesterday morning so solicited and tampered with as they proved knaves to me. ... Besides these, there were five of my promisers voted not at all, but absented.

Three days after the election Dawnay was rewarded with an Irish peerage. His interest was so secure that it was thought ‘difficult for any to contest [Pontefract ] without my Lord Downe espouse him in partnership’.5

In June 1681 the corporation sent a loyal address under the common seal approving the dissolution of Parliament, and this was followed by addresses abhorring the ‘Association’ and the Rye House Plot. Early in March 1685 the corporation congratulated James II on his accession. Although the Pontefract charter was remodelled in 1685 Downe’s interest was not affected, and he was returned unopposed with Yarburgh, who had been recommended by Halifax. In March 1688 the recorder and five aldermen were removed by order-in-council, but the royal electoral agents reported in September that Downe and Yarburgh would retain their seats. A second purge followed, in which the mayor, the new recorder, six aldermen, and the town clerk were replaced. The old charter was restored in October, and on 16 Dec. Danby wrote to the mayor:

I hope you will make such distinction in the elections of Parliament men to serve for your borough that you will not choose any who have only looked on whilst others have ventured their all to preserve you, or if you do I am sure you will not have deserved your preservation. I cannot but say this to you for the honour of your corporation as well as to the encouragement of the deserving countrymen on like occasions, and I can speak it with greater freedom having no design to prefer any but such in general as have showed you that they deserve it.

Downe and Yarburgh, both moderate Tories, were re-elected to the Convention.6

Authors: Paula Watson / Virginia C.D. Moseley


  • 1. Sheepscar lib. Leeds, Mexborough mss 15/78.
  • 2. Northern Hist. iii. 94-95; R. Holmes, Booke of Entries, 59.
  • 3. Notts. RO, DDSR221/94, Franke, Owthwaite and Wilkinson to Lowther, 7 May 1660; 96, Turner to Savile, 26, 31 Mar., 7, 12, 17, 21 Apr. 1660; CJ, viii. 33.
  • 4. DDSR221/96, Turner to Savile, 17 Feb., 16 Mar. 1661; Holmes, 77-80, 135-6.
  • 5. HMC Astley, 41; G. Fox, Pontefract, 49; Spencer mss, Hickman to Halifax, 20 Aug. 1679; Mexborough mss 15/48, 78; 18/23, Kaye to Reresby, 11, 17 Feb., 20 Oct. 1681.
  • 6. London Gazette, 3 June 1681, 15 May 1682, 3 Sept. 1683, 9 Mar. 1685; CSP Dom. 1685, p. 73; Fox, 50-53; PC2/72/640, 668, 734; Duckett, Penal Laws (1882), 103; HMC 14th Rep. IX, 454.