Available from Cambridge University Press
Right of Election:
in burgage holders
Estimated number qualified to vote:
about 30 in 18311
2,198 (1821); 1,876 (1831)2
|9 Mar. 1820||GEORGE PERCY, Lord Lovaine|
|HON. HENRY PERCY|
|4 Apr. 1821||LOVAINE re-relected after appointment to office|
|6 May 1825||HON. PERCY ASHBURNHAM vice Percy, deceased|
|13 June 1826||GEORGE PERCY, Lord Lovaine|
|HON. PERCY ASHBURNHAM|
|31 July 1830||GEORGE PERCY, Lord Lovaine|
|11 Jan. 1831||DAVID LYON vice Lovaine, called to the Upper House||7|
|2 May 1831||ALGERNON PERCY, Lord Lovaine||9|
|Sir James Mackintosh|
Bere Alston, a small village covering an area of some ten acres in the south-west of the county, relied for employment mainly on the neighbouring tin and silver-lead mines, but it was reported in 1831 that the male population had fallen from about 400 to 200 in the past decade as a result of mine closures.3 The borough was contained within but comprised only part of the parish of Beer Ferris, and the right of voting was vested in ‘persons holding by burgage tenure and paying a small chief rent to the lord of the manor’, Algernon Percy†, 1st earl of Beverley, who appointed the portreeve, the returning officer for parliamentary elections. A document prepared in 1826 shows that the burgage tenants were non-resident and that the properties they nominally held were let to local inhabitants.4 Beverley, a Tory, filled the seats until 1830 with his sons and grandson, Ashburnham, and his successor returned his own son in 1831. Blackett, a Northumberland landowner, and Lyon, a wealthy London merchant, were presumably paying guests.
The portreeve and inhabitants sent anti-slavery petitions to Parliament, 6, 7 Mar. 1826, and the Independents petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Test Acts, 25 Feb. 1828.5 It appears from later accounts that the general election in 1830 descended into ‘farce’, when the inhabitants tried to propose their own candidates but were thwarted by the portreeve, John Butter, who told them that they were ‘either too soon, or too late’ and then retired ‘with a chosen band to an adjoining tavern, where he ... made the return directed by his patron’.6 Anti-slavery petitions were forwarded to the Commons by the Wesleyan Methodists, 11 Nov. 1830, and to both Houses by the inhabitants, 29 Mar., 13 Apr. 1831.7 The vacancy occasioned by Lovaine’s succession as 2nd earl of Beverley in October 1830 provided another opportunity for local protest, and his absence abroad meant that ‘new arrangements for close management became indispensable’. Every device was allegedly used to delay the issuing of the writ, while Beverley’s agents, Messrs. Leach, Little and Woollcombe of Devonport, ‘mustered all their strength’. On election day there was ‘an unusually numerous assemblage of the voters and persons possessing property’ in the borough and parish, who met, ‘according to ancient custom’, under a tree in the centre of the village, then adjourned to a tavern owing to the cold. Lyon was nominated by William Foot, a Devonport attorney, and General George Adams of Totnes, and John Attwood (possibly the Conservative Member for Harwich, 1841-9) was sponsored by Richard Toll, a freeholder of the parish, and one Northey; neither of the candidates was present. The portreeve, Samuel Kerswill, declared the show of hands to be in Attwood’s favour, but a poll was demanded. Lyon received seven votes, cast by Foot, Adams, John Bastard, Member for Dartmouth, a banker and a lawyer from Plymouth, a vicar from Bridestowe and a yeoman from Buckland Monachorum, while 31 votes tendered for Attwood by freeholders and householders paying scot and lot were rejected. Hugh Snell, a conveyancer from Callington, who represented Attwood, protested against the exclusion of the inhabitants and elicited through questions that only one of the voters possessed a deed and that none knew anything about the properties they supposedly held. He successfully objected to Woollcombe acting as the assessor. When Lyon was declared elected, Snell promised a petition against the return, but this did not materialize.8
In the Grey ministry’s reform bill of March 1831 Bere Alston was placed among the schedule A boroughs destined for disfranchisement. On 15 Apr. Blackett urged Lord John Russell to extend the boundary to include the whole parish of Beer Ferris, which would raise the population to over 2,000 and justify transferring it from A to B. Three days later Russell rejected this suggestion, explaining that Beer Ferris was ‘a county parish and does not contain more than one house let at a rent of £10 a year’; in his opinion, there was ‘no place ... more deserving of being swept away from the list of represented boroughs’ than Bere Alston. At the subsequent dissolution the duke of Wellington thought he would be allowed to nominate one of the Members, but Beverley had resolved to return his son with Lyon; the poll was delayed until Lovaine came of age on 2 May.9 The inhabitants put forward the names of Sir James Mackintosh*, the eminent Whig lawyer, and Charles Wood*, Lord Grey’s private secretary. Another charade was enacted, with Lovaine and Lyon receiving nine split votes from non-residents, who declined to give any information about their tenancies, while the supporters of Mackintosh and Wood ‘tendered 25 votes’, with ‘many more’ in reserve, which were all disallowed. When the result was announced the inhabitants made clear to Lovaine, the only candidate present, their view that ‘if Beeralston was to continue to be represented [they] should choose their own Members’, and that ‘they would much rather see the borough entirely disfranchised than the continuance of the present insulting mockery’. Lovaine and the voters reportedly ‘seemed thoroughly ashamed of the job’. The proceedings ended with three cheers being given for the reform bill.10 A ‘spirited petition’ against the return was organized, which apparently owed much to ‘the indefatigable exertions of William Smith of Tamerton Foliott’, a former resident of the borough. It was presented in the names of Toller and James Borley, 1 July, and alleged that the voters’ burgage tenures were invalid, as no court baron to register them had been held for forty years, that the attorney Deeble Boger, Lovaine’s agent, had improperly acted as the assessor and that Lovaine was underage; it was not pursued.11 On 20 July 1831 Russell moved that Bere Alston stand in schedule A of the reintroduced reform bill, arguing that there were no grounds for extending the boundary to the parish as it was ‘one of those decayed boroughs which no such junction could cure’; this was agreed, despite Tory criticisms that ministers were acting inconsistently. The inhabitants petitioned the Lords against alteration or delay to the bill, 7 Oct. 1831, observing that ‘they cannot say ... that they willingly relinquish their rights for the good of the community, for ... they have never been allowed to exercise them’.12
The new criteria applied in the revised bill of December 1831 confirmed Bere Alston’s fate, as it contained 139 houses and paid £14 in assessed taxes, placing it tenth in the list of the smallest English boroughs. It was duly disfranchised in 1832 and absorbed into the new Southern division of Devon. In 1850 it was said to be ‘much improved ... by the erection of new houses’ and had ‘about 1,400 inhabitants’, thanks to the revival of mining in the neighbourhood, but this finally ceased in the 1880s.13
Author: Terry Jenkins
- 1. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 499.
- 2. Ibid. (1830-1), x. 4; (1831), xvi. 253. Figures refer to the parish of Beer Ferris.
- 3. Ibid. (1831-2), xxxvi. 37; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 729-30.
- 4. PP (1830-1), x. 58; (1831-2), xxxvi. 499; Alnwick Castle mss Add K/7, ‘State of the borough of Beeralston, 1826’.
- 5. CJ, lxxxi. 129; lxxxiii. 100; LJ, lviii. 85.
- 6. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 15 Jan.; Western Times, 22 Jan. 1831.
- 7. CJ, lxxxvi. 56, 454; LJ, lxiii. 414.
- 8. R. Devonport Telegraph, 15 Jan.; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 15 Jan.; Western Times, 22 Jan. 1831.
- 9. Wellington mss WP1/1182/14; 1183/14, 15.
- 10. Plymouth Herald, 7 May 1831.
- 11. Plymouth Jnl. 30 June 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 603-5, 648, 663.
- 12. LJ, lxiii. 1072; R. Devonport Telegraph, 8 Oct. 1831.
- 13. White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 729-30; W. Hoskins, Devon, 136.