Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the corporation

Number qualified to vote:



8,751 (1821); 9,566 (1831)


7 Mar. 1820DUDLEY RYDER, Visct. Sandon
9 June 1826DUDLEY RYDER, Visct. Sandon
30 July 1830DUDLEY RYDER, Visct. Sandon

Main Article

Tiverton, a large market town situated near the confluence of the Rivers Exe and Loman, about 13 miles north-east of Exeter, had been ‘the most considerable industrial town in Devon’ during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, its manufacture of serges and other woollen cloths had gradually declined during the eighteenth and it suffered an economic collapse when export markets in northern Europe were lost as a result of the French wars. In 1816 John Heathcote established a lace-making factory which played a major role in rejuvenating the economy; by 1830 it employed over 1,000 people and constituted ‘the staple trade of the town’. The borough was coextensive with the parish, which covered a large fertile hinterland, and approximately a quarter of the population was engaged in agriculture. A ‘spacious market place’ for corn and cattle was built in 1830-1.1

The franchise was confined to members of the corporation, which consisted of the mayor, who was elected by his colleagues annually and served as the returning officer for parliamentary elections, 11 other capital burgesses and 12 assistant burgesses, who held their offices for life. It was a purely self-electing body, vacancies for capital burgess being filled from among the assistants and new assistants chosen from the town’s inhabitants, who were not required subsequently to be resident. Many corporators were related and their office was often treated as a matter of hereditary right. No freemen had been admitted since 1794 and no such body was ‘recognized in any of the corporate transactions’. The Tory patron was Dudley Ryder†, 1st earl of Harrowby, the recorder, whose family had been connected with the borough since the 1730s and had returned both Members since 1795. Harrowby owned no property there, and his control rested on his ability to obtain ‘numerous appointments in the church [and] in various departments of the public service’ for burgesses, their relatives and connections. He also provided loans to local tradesmen suffering from the decline of the woollen textile industry. By the early 1800s non-residence had reached ‘scandalous’ proportions within the corporation and it was ‘only under pressure from ... Harrowby’ that the situation was slowly rectified; even so, no place was found for such an important figure as Heathcote, and no Dissenters were admitted after repeal of the Test Acts in 1828. Despite the oligarchical nature of Tiverton politics a strong tradition of radicalism survived, nourished by the ‘myth’ that the borough’s original charter had ‘conferred the franchise on the freemen of the town’.2

In 1820 Harrowby’s brother, Richard Ryder, and eldest son, Lord Sandon, were returned unopposed.3 That autumn, John Wood, the town clerk and manager of the Harrowby interest, reported that James Partridge, ‘a radical attorney’, was circulating an address in support of Queen Caroline, and though he issued a handbill warning the inhabitants that the address was unauthorized, he suspected that ‘all the radicals at the factory and many more will be prevailed upon to sign it’.4 In November 1820 the news of the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties prompted prolonged celebrations. The church bells were rung on the Sabbath, ‘during the intervals of divine worship’, and at five o’clock the next morning a band paraded the streets playing ‘Rule, Britannia’, the friendly societies held a procession at noon and in the evening ‘four hogsheads of cider, raised by subscription, were distributed ... and a partial illumination took place’. Two days later, a larger procession involving nearly 1,200 people was organized, effigies of the three perjured Italian witnesses and the ‘green bag’ were burned, and in the evening ‘nearly all the houses were lighted up’. Wood and the capital burgess George Barne arranged a public meeting to agree a loyal address to the king, but Wood admitted that it contained fewer signatures than that sent to the queen, ‘as most of the women and children ... had their names set to the latter’.5 Petitions reached the Lords from the woollen manufacturers for repeal of the duty on imported wool, 2 Apr. 1821, the Commons from the leather trade against repeal of the leather tax, 31 May 1822, and the Lords from the merchants and traders for a small debts recovery bill, 21 Feb. 1825.6 The inhabitants of Tiverton and neighbouring parishes petitioned the Commons for relief from agricultural distress, 22 Apr. 1822, as did the owners and occupiers of land for maintenance of the corn laws, 28 Apr. 1825.7 In March 1824 the mayor reportedly ignored a requisition, signed by ‘about 20 of the most respectable’ inhabitants, for a public meeting to promote a petition for repeal of the house and reduction of the window taxes.8 The corporation sent up an anti-Catholic petition to the Commons, 19 Apr. 1825.9 Since 1820 a retired merchant, George Coles, who had been refused admission to the corporation, had pursued a relentless campaign against it, alleging various ‘irregularities’ in its composition and procedures. Working with Partridge, he demanded the removal of non-resident burgesses, argued that the offices of recorder and town clerk should not be combined with that of burgess and condemned the presence of clerical corporators. Barne complained that Coles was ‘tormenting some of our brethren unmercifully’ and Harrowby had to ask the duke of Wellington not to order a burgess named Walker to the Shetlands as barrack master, as this would lead to calls for his resignation.10 It was presumably because of the threat posed by Coles that in 1824 certain burgesses suggested that Heathcote, a man of ‘very considerable ... influence in this town and with every probability of its increase’, should be made ‘one of us’, but nothing was done.11 Early in 1825 Coles informed Harrowby that he had forwarded a memorial to Lord Holland for presentation to the king and passed information to an unnamed Member, adding the revealing comment that he had been ‘goaded from one step to another by the insolence of office and a most marked inattention’. In April Sir Henry Carew, the lord of the manor, chaired a meeting to organize a memorial to both Houses regarding the ‘present exercise of the parliamentary franchise’, and though this was apparently not sent, Coles published a pamphlet repeating his complaints against the corporation and elaborating on his claim that Tiverton’s franchise had originally been in the inhabitant householders.12 It seems likely that Tiverton was the borough concerned when Lord Carnarvon was approached via Lord Lansdowne in the spring of 1826 with a proposal that he should spend £2,200 to bring forward his son, Lord Porchester*, as the champion of local reformers seeking to challenge an established interest; nothing came of this.13 At the dissolution that summer two London barristers, James Kennedy and George Heath, were invited to stand by ‘a party [that] has long been forming’ to assert the inhabitants’ rights, but when Kennedy arrived the evening before the election he was accompanied instead by one Anderson, ‘an agent for ... Heath’. The guildhall was crowded next day when the Rev. Charles Osmond and John Govett senior nominated Ryder and Sandon. Coles, ‘amidst great applause’, proposed Kennedy and Anderson and was seconded by Partridge, but the mayor declared this to be informal and proceeded to take the burgesses’ votes ‘seriatim’. Partridge ‘tendered the mayor a demand in writing, signed by some of the audience, claiming the right to vote as inhabitants and burgesses’, but this was rejected and Ryder and Sandon were declared elected. Afterwards, ‘several hundred people’ accompanied Kennedy to Partridge’s house, where he stated his determination to petition, but though it was reported that ‘Messrs. Brougham, Denman, Mereweather and other high legal characters’ had pronounced in favour of the inhabitants’ claim, no further action was taken. The Members gave a dinner at the Three Tuns and a ball and supper at the Angel, which were ‘numerously and respectably attended’.14

The Protestant Dissenters sent petitions for repeal of the Test Acts to the Commons, 6 June 1827, and both Houses, 25 Feb. 1828.15 Late in 1827 the limits of the pro-Catholic Harrowby’s influence were exposed when the corporation refused to accept his likeminded son, Granville Ryder, as a replacement for the anti-Catholic Richard, who therefore retained his seat despite chronic ill health. The corporation forwarded an anti-Catholic petition to the Lords, 9 June 1828, as did the inhabitants, 16 Feb. 1829.16 Richard Ryder continued to oppose emancipation in 1829, while Sandon voted as before in its favour. In April 1828 the corporation, encouraged by the Municipal Society, agreed to petition the Commons against a clause in the alehouse licensing bill which proposed to give county magistrates a concurrent jurisdiction in corporate towns with less than six magistrates. Sandon, who was requested to give all possible assistance in opposing the ‘obnoxious clause’, presented the petition, 28 Apr., and helped to secure the bill’s amendment.17 In 1830 the corporation passed to Sandon a petition against the sale of beer bill, which it was feared would lead to ‘the most dissolute and disaffected persons’ opening beer houses, but when he presented it, 4 May, it had been altered to express support for the bill but opposition to consumption on the premises. The licensed victuallers and maltsters petitioned both Houses in the same sense, 4, 18 May.18 By 1830 Coles had achieved some success in his campaign against the corporation, forcing the removal of clerical corporators, but he lamented the increase in the number of attorneys admitted as burgesses.19 Shortly before the dissolution in July Richard Ryder informed the corporation of his intention to retire and referred to private assurances given to him during a visit in February that Granville would be supported as his successor, now that ‘the only objection’ to him had been ‘removed by the settlement of the ... Catholic question’. The mention of private assurances appears to have provoked suspicion and resentment on the part of certain other burgesses, and Harrowby was obliged to apologize for his brother’s indiscretion and announce that Granville and Sandon would visit the town ‘in order to have an opportunity of ascertaining the state of things’.20 In the event, they were returned unopposed and the only matter of comment was the ‘enormous’ bill of £173 15s. for the celebration dinner for 159 people. Coles was probably responsible for a subsequent newspaper article which stated that Tiverton ‘would certainly have been contested’ but for the respect felt for Harrowby and Sandon, who had ‘proved themselves the friends of retrenchment and economy, the advocates of religious liberty and the abettors of that measure which will afford to the poor man a wholesome beverage at a moderate price’.21

The Protestant Dissenters sent up anti-slavery petitions to both Houses, 11, 16 Nov., and the Commons, 15 Dec. 1830, 7 Feb. 1831.22 In December 1830 the new town clerk, Frederick Patch, reported to Harrowby that ‘about 600 special constables’ had been sworn in as a precaution to deal with agrarian disturbances, although the town and district were ‘perfectly quiet’; he added that ‘Mr. Talley and Mr. Haydon have taken down their threshing machines’.23 Coles organized a petition from the inhabitants requesting their inclusion in any measure of parliamentary reform, which was presented to the Commons by Lord Ebrington, the Whig county Member, 26 Feb., and the Lords by Lord King, 3 Mar. 1831. On 14 Mar. a meeting was held to petition in support of the Grey ministry’s bill, which proposed to open the borough by enfranchising £10 householders while leaving its representation intact. Sandon, who had joined the government, was impressed by the ‘considerate and kindly manner’ of Coles’s request and agreed to present the Commons petition, 17 Mar.; that to the Lords was presented by lord chancellor Brougham, 21 Apr.24 Early in March Sandon had written to the corporation offering to resign his seat, in view of the bill’s adverse consequences for his constituents, but this was initially declined. However, at the end of the month Benjamin Dickinson advised him that most of his fellow burgesses were ‘decidedly and fixedly hostile to the measure’ and that in the event of a general election on the issue ‘your lordship would not be returned’. At the ensuing dissolution, Sandon placed himself in the corporation’s hands, but there was such ‘strong party feeling’ that the efforts of Barne and a few others were not enough to save him. It was on his recommendation, nevertheless, that Spencer Perceval, son of the assassinated prime minister, who was ‘long and intimately connected’ with the Ryder family and ‘well known for his opposition to the present measure’, was invited to stand with the anti-reformer Granville Ryder.25 The inhabitants were ‘deeply offended by the substitution of a total stranger’ for Sandon, and Perceval had to delay his arrival in order to avoid a ducking party that was awaiting him. Granville Ryder and his uncle Richard were met by a hostile crowd and, ‘in the excitement of the moment ... some panes of glass were broken’. On the evening before polling, effigies of the candidates were paraded through the streets, accompanied by ‘at least 3,000 persons’ and a band ‘playing the dead march’, and then burnt while the band played ‘God Save the King’. Each effigy had a placard pinned to its breast, one reading ‘Twenty-four jackasses and their Ryder’, the other ‘General Fast, while the people were starving’, a reference to the Evangelical Perceval’s obsession. During the formal proceedings Coles ‘claimed a right, as an independent householder’, to vote for Sandon and Kennedy, but this was refused by the mayor, John Barne, who declared Ryder and Perceval elected. As the Members attempted to return thanks ‘the uproar grew tremendous’, with ‘threats of vengeance, hootings, hisses and all other kinds of noises’, and the burgesses were ‘abused and insulted by all manner of nicknames’. When Perceval left the hall he was pelted with salt fish and forced to take refuge in the Angel, before his departure with the Ryders. Coles reported to Sandon that opinion in favour of the reform bill was ‘unanimous’ outside the corporation, and that among its leading advocates were Heathcote, Colonel Pell and the Rev. John Spurway.26

The inhabitants petitioned the Lords for the speedy passage of the reintroduced reform bill, 3 Oct. 1831, and a petition was presented next day signed by John Crampton on behalf of a ‘political society in Tiverton’.27 Later that month, Coles forwarded to Lord Grey an address to the king, signed by ‘at least 1,500 inhabitants of Tiverton and its neighbourhood’, urging him to meet the people’s wishes by exercising his prerogative.28 Heathcote’s attempt at this time to reduce the wages of his factory workers provoked a strike, which lasted for three weeks. Large numbers of strikers were ‘daily parading the streets to the terror of the inhabitants’, and an attack on the empty house of the factory manager forced the mayor to summon the yeomanry to restore order. A ‘large force of special constables’ was sworn in to patrol the streets, and several of the rioters were tried and imprisoned. However, it appears that the disturbances were ‘free from any political consideration’ and the dispute was settled by a compromise.29 On 28 June 1832 ‘several thousand’ people joined a ‘grand procession’ to celebrate the passage of the revised reform bill, after which a dinner was given to ‘between 2 and 3,000 of the poor class of the town and neighbourhood’, followed by a firework display.30

The boundary commissioners reported that the borough supplied ‘an ample constituency’ and that it was ‘unnecessary to recommend any alteration of the original boundary’; there were 462 registered electors in 1832, of whom 19 were corporators.31 In June 1832 Heathcote, the largest property owner in the borough, and Kennedy announced their candidatures at the forthcoming general election in the Liberal interest. Harrowby was advised that there was no hope of ‘any member of your lordship’s family being returned’ and Granville Ryder was warned that he risked being ‘insulted if you came here, so opposed are the people ... to anything in the shape of a vile Tory’. Heathcote and Kennedy were easily returned in December ahead of two other Liberals.32 Tiverton usually returned two Liberals until its disfranchisement in 1885: Heathcote sat until his retirement in 1859, but the impecunious Kennedy was paid £2,000 in 1835 to vacate his seat for Lord Palmerston*. Palmerston was ‘almost inundated with requests’ from his constituents for patronage and ‘had no choice but to meet at least a number of them’, including a clerkship at the foreign office for Augustus Coles, ‘the son of his right-hand-man in his new constituency’.33

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 263-4; White’s Devon Dir. (1850), 305-8; PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 111; (1835), xxiii. 630; W. Harding, Hist. Tiverton, i. 238; W. Hoskins, Devon, 66, 495-7; Georgian Tiverton: The Political Memoranda of Beavis Wood 1768-98 ed. J. Bourne (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. n.s. xxix, 1986), pp. xx-xxi.
  • 2. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 592; (1835), xxiii. 623-30; Western Times, 13 Nov. 1830; Georgian Tiverton, pp. vii-xxvii; E. Chalk, ‘Tiverton Letters and Papers’, N and Q, clxx (1936), passim; Devon RO, Harrowby-Tiverton mss (xerox copy), used by Chalk and Bourne, consists largely of patronage correspondence.
  • 3. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 9 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xv. 61; Alfred, 3 Oct. 1820.
  • 5. Alfred, 12 Dec. 1820; Harrowby-Tiverton mss xv. 70-71.
  • 6. CJ, lxxvii. 305; LJ, liv. 156; lvii. 42.
  • 7. CJ, lxxvii. 192; lxxx. 350.
  • 8. Alfred, 16 Mar. 1824.
  • 9. CJ, lxxx. 321.
  • 10. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xv. 52, 90, 131; xvi. 3, 6, 20a, 29; Wellington mss WP1/810/25.
  • 11. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvi. 29, 41.
  • 12. Ibid. 86-87, 91, 95a.
  • 13. Hants RO, Carnarvon mss 75M91/H4/6, Porchester to Lady H. Herbert, n.d.; Som. RO, Herbert mss DD/DRU/5/6, same to same, 25, 26 Mar. 1826.
  • 14. Alfred, 20 June 1826; Harding, i. 235-6; Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvi. 103a.
  • 15. CJ, lxxxii. 520; lxxxiii. 100; LJ, lx. 74.
  • 16. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvi. 141; J. Wolffe, Protestant Crusade in Britain, 43-44; LJ, lx. 520; lxi. 39.
  • 17. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvi. 153, 161a; CJ, lxxxiii. 279.
  • 18. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvii. 35; CJ, lxxxv. 365; LJ, lxii. 457.
  • 19. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvii. 30.
  • 20. Ibid. 43a, 45.
  • 21. Ibid. 46, 55.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxvi. 56, 175, 216; LJ, lxiii. 96.
  • 23. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvii. 67.
  • 24. CJ, lxxxvi. 310, 395; LJ, lxiii. 286, 499; Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvii. 80, 88-90; Alfred, 29 Mar. 1831.
  • 25. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvii. 83, 86-87, 92-96.
  • 26. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 5 May; Alfred, 10 May 1831; Harding, i. 240-1; Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvii. 97.
  • 27. LJ, lxiii. 1039, 1050.
  • 28. Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvii. 98, 98a; Besley’s Exeter News, 22, 29 Oct., 5 Nov. 1831.
  • 29. Exeter Independent, 18 Oct., 1 Nov. 1831; Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvii. 99; Harding, i. 241-4.
  • 30. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 June; Besley’s Exeter News, 1 July 1832.
  • 31. PP (1831-2), xxxviii. 111; (1835), xxiii. 630.
  • 32. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 June, 22 Dec. 1832; Harrowby-Tiverton mss xvii. 101-2.
  • 33. K. Bourne, Palmerston, 445-6, 450, 541-2.