Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the freemen and freeholders
Number of Qualified Electors:
Number of voters:
|26 Feb. 1690||William Cary|
|23 Feb. 1694||John Burrington vice Northleigh, deceased|
|1 Nov. 1695||John Burrington|
|28 July 1698||William Harris|
|9 Jan. 1701||William Harris|
|28 Nov. 1701||William Harris|
|27 July 1702||Sir Simon Leach|
|15 May 1705||Thomas Northmore|
|Sir Simon Leach||117|
|Double return. NORTHMORE and DIBBLE declared elected, 20 Dec. 1705|
|12 May 1708||John Dibble|
|1 Dec. 1709||Christopher Harris vice William Harris, deceased|
|12 Oct. 1710||John Dibble|
|3 Sept. 1713||Christopher Harris|
There was no decisive proprietorial interest in Okehampton during this period, although the influence of several local families enabled them to command its parliamentary seats over two or more elections without the trouble of a contest. In 1690 the Members elected to the Convention were returned again. They were William Cary of Clovelly, a Court Tory whose elder brother Sir George† had forged strong connexions with the borough in the 1680s and served as recorder until his death in 1685, and Henry Northleigh, another Tory who owned property in the borough. Upon Northleigh’s death in January 1694, John Burrington, a local Whig, was elected, though the exact nature of his connexion with Okehampton has not been ascertained. Burrington retained his seat in the 1695 election, while in Cary’s place was elected a Tory, Thomas Northmore, an Exeter lawyer whose father had been a prominent Okehampton resident and whose brother was currently town clerk. In 1698 Northmore was partnered by William Harris of Hayne, a Country Whig who in the 1690 Parliament had represented the Cornish borough of St Ives. Harris’ family links with the borough were particularly strong in that his father’s cousin Sir Arthur Harris, 1st Bt., had represented it for much of Charles ii’s reign by virtue of his inheritance of property there from his mother, a daughter of the 1st Lord Mohun of Okehampton (John†). Northmore and Harris, it was reported, were returned ‘by most voices’. At the first election of 1701 Bishop Trelawny of Exeter wrote with some trepidation at the prospect that Okehampton might elect ‘Mr Dalby Thomas’ who had recently been censured ‘for bribery and other enormities’, but in fact both sitting MPs retained their seats without a contest.2
After the accession of Queen Anne, Harris, whose politics had moved towards Toryism, declined to stand and Northmore was returned with Sir Simon Leach, also a Tory. Leach had represented Okehampton in James ii’s Parliament and was said by the King’s agents in 1688 to have ‘the greatest interest’ in the borough, but during the 1690s he had largely avoided politics, having been branded as a Jacobite suspect. Unusually, a contest arose in 1705 involving three Tories, Northmore, Leach and William Harris, and a Whig, John Dibble, whose mercantile trade in timber was based in the Okehampton area. The election proceedings on 15 May were punctuated by ‘several disturbances’ and necessitated a series of brief adjournments. Harris was defeated outright, but a double return was filed of Northmore, Dibble and Leach, with Northmore’s name occurring on both indentures. Dibble petitioned on 2 Nov., stating that the day after a return had been made of himself and Northmore the mayor had been ‘surprized’ by the town clerk John Northmore into issuing a second indenture, this time returning Leach with Thomas Northmore. Not only was the town clerk the brother of the newly elected Member, but, as Dibble’s petition made plain, he had also acted as Leach’s agent in the election. Leach’s petition, likewise presented on 2 Nov., alleged bribery and other indirect practices on Dibble’s part. A third petition came from the mayor Christopher Yendall, who being ‘an illiterate man’ complained that John Northmore had tricked him into putting his mark on a document which he only later discovered was a return of Leach. His efforts to put matters right had not prevented the sheriff from submitting two returns. With Dibble’s vote only marginally greater than Leach’s, in the elections committee on 1 Dec. each side laboured to disqualify a proportion of their opponents’ votes. Leach’s counsel concentrated on 21 of Dibble’s voters on various counts of bribery: the son of one, an attorney, had been promised Dibble’s legal business on condition of his father’s vote; another had been promised the lease of a house and a third given £10 for a vote. Joseph Goodman, an innkeeper, testified that ‘a year or more’ before the election Dibble had offered to spend £500 in drink at his inn, adding that he would ‘spend £2,000 in the town rather than miscarry in it . . . it was but cheating the Queen of a foot of timber more’. Another witness testified that he was offered free carriage of his goods in Dibble’s waggons. On the other side, Dibble’s counsel alleged bribery on Leach’s part and gave evidence against 14 of his voters as being improperly qualified either as freeholders or freemen. By 176 votes to 123 the elections committee concluded in favour of Dibble, and at the report on the 20th he was declared elected by 156 votes to 141.3
By early 1708, moves were afoot to deprive Northmore of his seat and replace him with William Harris. In February, however, Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt.*, reported that Harris and Dibble were so seriously at variance that it was likely to affect adversely their chances of election. ‘I agree’, Sir Francis wrote,
the former [Harris] will spend no money and [I] think that he has pretty much discountenanced even his friends, but the other must expect utmost opposition and probably enough from Will[iam] Harris himself, and the generality of his votes are so mean and now as I doubt they’ll hardly bear up against the party they are to meet.
The election in May passed off uneventfully, with Northmore making little or no attempt to defend his seat, thus allowing the two Whigs, Dibble and Harris, an unopposed return. Drake’s misgivings, certainly insofar as Harris was concerned, continued unabated, and in a subsequent missive to Peter King* in the summer he confided that ‘we can have no comfort in bringing of him into Parliament but that of turning Northmore out’. Harris’ death in October 1709 only made matters worse, for it provided Dibble with fresh scope to carry on his exploitation of the corporation’s machinery for creating freemen and thereby to swamp the electorate with Whig votes for himself. The local gentry were in favour of a Tory choice, in the form of Harris’ younger brother Christopher, an attorney of Penzance. Dibble, however, had brought forward his own candidate, one Vernon. The exact identity of this man has not been established, although a strong possibility is that it was the Thomas Vernon* who appears to have contested Dartmouth in January 1701 and who, like Dibble, had strong family connexions in Surrey. Sir Nicholas Morice, 2nd Bt.*, reported:
there will be a great appearance of the gentry of this county to join Mr Harris to oppose Vernon and his patron Dibble, a man much hated by all that know him in this county. But notwithstanding the appearance of Mr Harris and his friends in so great a crowd, Vernon will have the return if he hath not half the voices from a knavish mayor, a beggarly maltster.
Despite Dibble’s efforts, Vernon appears not to have gone to a poll, and Harris was duly elected. After the 1710 election, however, when Dibble and Harris were returned unopposed, Harris, together with a number of leading constituents, presented a petition (5 Dec.) setting out their long-standing grievances about the way in which Dibble’s local Whig accomplices in the corporation had flouted corporation bye-laws in enrolling new freemen in the most arbitrary fashion to strengthen his electoral position, most notably at the 1709 by-election. The petition set forth that, though freemen could only be admitted with the consent of the mayor and the greater part of the common council, Christopher Yendall, the mayor in 1709, had created no fewer than 135 new freemen in an alehouse without informing the town clerk, most of them ‘servants, waggoners and carters of Mr Dibble’s’, as well as
strangers, many of them vagrants, deserters of the Queen’s service, and others idle persons, who by reason of such pretended freedom, screen themselves from the Act for raising recruits by reason of their pretended right of choosing Members to Parliament; and they, and their families, claim a privilege of exercising trades within the said borough, to the great scandal and impoverishment of the corporation . . . that the said Yendall and several preceding mayors, by confederating themselves together, have yearly, as they were mayors, [acted] purposely to advance the interest of John Dibble, Member for the borough.
The House earmarked the case to be heard at the bar on 1 Feb. 1711, but before then, on 4 Jan., Harris was compelled to bring a formal complaint of privilege against Yendall, mayor of Okehampton for a further term, for having spoken of him and the other signatories of the earlier petition in ‘scandalous and reproachful words’. On 24 Feb., after several postponements of the case, the House embarked on the hearing, but proceeded no further than a resolution stating the right of election to be ‘in the freeholders and freemen, being made free according to the charter and by-laws of the said borough’, and no action was ever ordered against Yendall. By 1713, Dibble’s career had ended ignominiously as he took refuge from his creditors, and at the election of that year Harris was returned unopposed with William Northmore, nephew and heir of the aforementioned Thomas.4
Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Andrew A. Hanham
- 1. Willis, Not. Parl. ii. 299.
- 2. W. R. Bridges, Okehampton, 107; Devon RO, Exeter dioc. archs., Bp. Trelawny to Adn. Cook, 4 Jan. 1700–1.
- 3. Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 619.
- 4. Devon RO, Drake mss 346 M/F54, 55, Drake to King, 16 Feb., 9 July 1707–8; Morice mss at Bank of Eng. Morice to Joseph Moyle*, 29 Nov. 1709; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 314.