Double Member Borough
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Right of Election:
in the freemen
Number of voters:
|29 Apr. 1754||Samuel Greatheed||1194|
|25 Mar. 1761||James Hewitt||1079|
|17 Nov. 1766||Henry Seymour Conway vice Hewitt, appointed to office|
|16 Mar. 1768||Henry Seymour Conway||972|
|1 Dec. 1768||Sir Richard Glyn vice Archer, called to the Upper house||925|
|25 Jan. 1773||Walter Waring vice Glyn, deceased|
|8 Oct. 1774||Edward Roe Yeo||1571|
|15 Feb. 1780||John Baker Holroyd vice waring, deceased|
|29 Dec. 1780||Sir Thomas Hallifax||1319|
|Edward Roe Yeo||1298|
|John Baker Holroyd||1295|
|YEO and JOHN BAKER HOLROYD, Lord Sheffield, vice Hallifax and Rogers, on petition, 27 Feb. 1781|
|18 Jan. 1783||William Seymour Conway vice Yeo, deceased|
|3 Apr. 1784||Sir Sampson Gideon||588|
|John Baker Holroyd, Lord Sheffield||558|
|William Seymour Conway||552|
Coventry had a population of about 12,000 in 1754 and an electorate of about 2,500—one third of them non-resident. Its politics, generally conducted without much reference to national affairs, were on a corporation and anti-corporation basis; and elections were riotous and expensive. Lords Craven, Archer, and Hertford at different times concerned themselves with the borough; but it had an unsavoury reputation and the Warwickshire country gentlemen steered clear of it.
In 1754 Greatheed and Hewitt were the corporation candidates, and one seat was lost to the independent party. In 1761 the corporation, supported by Lord Archer, carried both seats; and in 1766 a son of Lord Hertford came in upon the corporation interest. About the general election of 1768, Taylor White, brother of John White, wrote on 22 Mar.:1
I dined at Coventry where I found the town had been set into a flame by the accidental coming of a stranger, one Mr. Waring. ... The town were displeased at Mr. Archer’s not having paid all the demands made on him for his last election, though most probably he paid more than was due. They went round the country to the Tory gentlemen ... but none of their own country chose to meddle with the Coventry electors. So this Mr. Waring ... was invited by the landlord of the Bull Inn at Coventry to stand, which he very wisely accepted of, and stood a poll.
There was more to Waring’s candidature than the wish to provoke a contest and profit from the expense; he was the candidate of the anti-corporation party. The corporation, their opponents alleged, rigged elections through their control over the admission of freemen, their power to license inns, and their disposal of charities. When Archer succeeded to the peerage, only six months after the general election, Waring was again invited to stand against the corporation candidate; he declined, and recommended his friend, Sir Richard Glyn, the London banker, who also received the support of Administration. The corporation candidate, Thomas Nash, a London linen draper, was supported by the Duke of Portland, though whether Portland was acting on his own or on behalf of the Rockingham party is not easy to say. Certainly political issues did not play much part in the election, which was a pretty dirty one even for Coventry. Here is one example of an electioneering trick. Lord Denbigh, who supported Glyn, requested the colonel of marines at Portsmouth to send all his men who were freemen of Coventry to vote for Glyn. Captain William Roberton, an officer of marines and a friend of Portland, learnt of this, and wrote to the Duke on 28 Nov.:2
I have got every one I could discover to have any pretensions to their freedom embarked on board the Phoenix on a voyage to the coast of Guinea, where Sir Richard will be sure to find them ten months hence if he wants them.
The following account of this election appears in a poll book, printed in London by J. Jones of Great Russell Street:
Notwithstanding Mr. Nash left Coventry at least four days before the time of polling, with a promise of declining and giving no further trouble ... a poll was demanded the evening before the day fixed for election, and which in Mr. Nash’s absence (probably without his consent) and contrary to his public declaration of declining, was wantonly carried on five days, though there was not the least shadow or probability of success.
After his election Glyn engaged in a lawsuit with the corporation ‘to show cause why they did not swear and enrol several freemen’, and won his case.
The power of the corporation was now declining. On Glyn’s death, Waring was returned unopposed; and at the general election of 1774 the corporation proposed only one candidate, Thomas Green, who was badly beaten. An address to the freemen of Coventry, printed in the poll book for the 1774 election, begins:
Permit me to congratulate you on the noble stand you have made in support of the liberty, freedom, and independency of this great city. Your children’s children—nay, lasting posterity, will from this great example learn to know that no body corporate has a right to exert undue power, or trample with impunity on the privileges, franchises, and freedom of the people.
The Coventry election of 1780 was the most fiercely contested of this period. Yeo and Holroyd, the anti-corporation candidates, were also supporters of North’s Administration; Hallifax and Rogers, the corporation candidates, were followers of the Opposition. Judging from election propaganda, the local issue was much more important; the widespread anti-Catholic feeling in Coventry, a consequence of the Gordon riots, added to the fury of the election without having much effect on the result. According to a broadsheet issued by Hallifax and Rogers:
Previous to the opening of the poll, to prevent riot and disorder, the sheriffs made a proposition to Mr. Holroyd, Mr. Yeo, and ourselves, to take the poll by tallies, which was immediately assented to by us but rejected by them. Before the opening of the poll on Saturday, the freemen in our interest (a few excepted) were forcibly kept back from the booth; many of them stripped naked and their clothes torn to pieces by a mob of colliers hired for that purpose; others cruelly beaten and most shamefully treated. The sheriffs, shocked at the injuries the freemen sustained, in order to prevent the like in future and preserve the freedom of election ... allotted one end of the booth for our voters to poll at and the other for the voters of Mr. Holroyd and Mr. Yeo.
The Coventry Mercury, which supported Holroyd and Yeo, wrote on 18 Sept. about this proposal to poll at opposite ends of the booth:
This proposal was rendered inadmissible not only by the state and construction of the booth, but also by the gross partiality of the sheriffs in the appointment of clerks to administer the oaths. At the upper end was placed a young prig, who rolled over the oaths with the volubility of a schoolboy. At the other end was fixed a toothless old man who, with the aid of a pair of spectacles, could scarcely see, and took as much time to swear one freeman as his brother clerk did to swear five, by which a temporary majority might have been gained and under pretence of riot or anything else the books finally closed.
Charges and counter-charges were hurled by the two sides in newspapers and broadsheets (the truth of which it is quite impossible to decide), and there was constant rioting round the polling booth. At the end of eight days only 97 freemen had polled, 65 for Holroyd and Yeo, and 32 for Hallifax and Rogers. On 26 Oct. the sheriffs returned the writ, and informed the House that because of rioting they were unable to proceed with the poll. The sheriffs were summoned to the bar to explain the circumstances, and on 29 Nov. the poll began again.
This second poll lasted 25 days. It seems to have been better conducted than the first, and on 29 Dec. the sheriffs returned Hallifax and Rogers, with majorities of 21 and 20 respectively. But according to the Coventry Mercury (1 Jan. 1781) the final figures should have been: Yeo 1,298; Sheffield (as Holroyd had now become) 1,295; Hallifax 1,178; Rogers 1,177. The Mercury claimed that 63 persons supporting the anti-corporation candidates had been refused their freedom; 141 had been created specially to vote for the corporation candidates; and a further 62 were not entitled to vote either because they were not properly qualified as freemen or were in receipt of charity. The House of Commons unseated the corporation candidates; declared Holroyd and Yeo duly elected; sent the sheriffs to Newgate; and introduced a bill for better regulating elections at Coventry, designed to ensure that none but legally qualified persons should be admitted to the freedom.
After this electoral orgy, the contest of 1784 was comparatively placid. Seymour Conway (who had succeeded Yeo in January 1783) and Sheffield both supported Fox, and on 28 Mar. 1784 the King wrote to Pitt:3
No candidates have yet started at Coventry against the late Members, which is the more extraordinary as I am told two new men might certainly, at not more than each £2,000, succeed, the town is so desirous of a change of representatives.
Two new candidates, both supporters of Pitt, were soon found: Sir Sampson Gideon, son of the rich Jewish financier; and his brother-in-law John Wilmot. It was probably Gideon’s readiness to spend money which brought a quick end to the poll. To what extent political issues affected the result is not clear.
Author: John Brooke
T. W. Whitley, Parlty. Rep. Coventry.