Available from Cambridge University Press
Right of Election:
in the freemen
Estimated number qualified to vote:
about 150, rising to 483 by 18311
Number of voters:
127 in 1829
8,326 (1821); 10,670 (1831)
|20 Mar. 1820||WILLIAM WIGRAM|
|19 June 1826||HENRY EVANS|
|3 June 1829||SIR ROBERT WIGRAM vice Evans, vacated his seat||79|
|Sir Edward Cholmeley Dering, bt.||48|
|DERING vice Wigram, on petition, 15 Mar. 1830|
|7 Aug. 1830||WILLIAM WIGRAM||31|
|Sir Edward Cholmeley Dering, bt.||28|
|DERING vice Wigram, on petition, 21 Feb. 1831|
|6 May 1831||CHARLES ARTHUR WALKER|
The port of Wexford carried on a ‘considerable export trade in cattle and agricultural produce’, but its harbour, which vessels of over 200 tons could not enter without unloading part of their cargo, was in need of ‘much improvement’. Before 1830 the predominantly Catholic population was excluded from the self-elected corporation of two bailiffs, 22 burgesses (one of whom was annually elected mayor) and an unlimited number of freemen, the majority of whom were honorary and ‘unconnected with the town by property or commercial relations’. There was no right of admission in respect of birth or marriage and ‘insuperable difficulty’ in qualifying by apprenticeship of seven years, so that the corporation was ‘in effect closed’. The representation continued to be dominated by the former Member Richard Nevill of Furness and the 2nd marquess of Ely, who, under the terms of a ‘cordial union’ agreed in 1798, which was ‘to be continued to their issue male, and in failure thereof to their nominees’, took turns at choosing the mayor and nominating the Members.2
At the 1820 general election Ely returned his kinsman William Wigram of London, a director of the East India Company and the son of a former Member.3 He opposed Catholic relief. On the death of Nevill in 1822 Henry Evans of Old Town, who had sat as Nevill’s nominee, 1819-20, assumed control of his interest until Nevill’s grandson Sir Edward Cholmeley Dering of Surrenden Dering, Kent, ‘should come of age’. To the annoyance of Dering’s mother, Lady Geary, however, and ‘without consulting any of the Nevill family’, Evans signed a statement, which was circulated to the freemen, saying that by continuing the ‘cordial union’ with Nevill’s successor, Ely had ‘fulfilled the compact entered into’ and would not therefore be ‘pledged to any future support of the Nevill interest’, 29 June 1822. Lady Geary ‘remonstrated’ with Ely against this, ‘but to no effect’. Evans later explained that he had signed ‘on the spur of the moment’, never thinking that the agreement ‘included him, as nominee, and no future representative thereafter’.4 A petition from the Catholic inhabitants for relief reached the Commons, 1 June 1824.5 At the 1826 general election Evans returned himself as the locum of the Nevill interest.6 He was strongly opposed to Catholic claims, for which petitions were presented to the Commons, 21 Apr., 1 Dec. 1826, 22 Feb. 1828. Hostile ones reached the Commons, 5 Mar. 1827, and the Lords, 15 Mar. 1827.7 Petitions for the Wellington ministry’s concession of emancipation, which Evans opposed, were presented to the Commons, 20, 27 Feb., and the Lords, 19, 26 Feb. Petitions against reached the Commons, 16 Feb., and the Lords, 2 Apr. 1829.8 One from the Catholics for repeal of the Irish Vestries Act was presented to the Commons, 19 May 1829.9
On 30 Apr. 1829 Dering, who was ‘just of age’, announced that he would come forward on his grandfather’s interest in place of Evans, whose ‘indisposition’ would ‘oblige him to retire’. Four days later Evans informed Ely that ‘finding my interference in Wexford has given no satisfaction to either party, and been attended with considerable trouble and expense’, he would vacate and ‘in future decline all further interference’. It was assumed that Dering would simply take Evans’s place, but Ely brought forward Sir Robert Wigram of Belmont Lodge, Worcestershire, the eldest brother of William, citing Evans’s declaration of non-interference and the document of 1822 in support of his claim that the ‘compact between the families’ had lapsed. Dering’s supporters protested that ‘an honorable agreement had been broken’ and appealed to the freemen to ‘rescue the town from the grasp’ of Ely, and in the ensuing bitter recriminations Evans was pilloried by both sides. Conceiving himself ‘not well used by either party’, he repeatedly disclaimed any responsibility for the collapse of the alliance, asserting that he could not understand why Ely had ‘refused to return Sir Edward in my place for the remainder of this Parliament ... on the ground that after accepting me’ he was ‘not bound to any future support of the Nevill family’. A few days before the nomination ‘an attempt was made between the parties to reconcile their differences’, in support of which Evans made ‘a long disclosure of the circumstances of the case’, but their negotiations failed.10 A ‘furious family contest’ then ensued, in which both candidates were proposed in absentia. At the end of the first day each had 26 votes (including two cast for Ely which were added to Wigram’s tally), but following the mayor’s rejection of 43 votes for Dering next day Wigram was returned with a majority of 31.11 A petition alleging that Wigram’s agents had offered ‘places and offices in the East India Company’s service’ and were guilty of ‘corrupt practices’, and that the mayor George Reade, under the ‘direction’ of Ely, had ‘illegally refused’ the freedom to many supporters of Dering who had served apprenticeships, was presented, 24 June.12 Shortly thereafter the ‘question of the legality of the votes’ was considered in a test case in king’s bench, which ruled that the mayor had unlawfully refused to admit to the freedom one Richard Allen (whose vote had been rejected) and issued a writ of mandamus ordering his immediate enrollment, 3 July. Despite this decision, the widely anticipated ‘opening’ of the corporation did not occur. Applications by apprentices continued to be refused by the new mayor Robert Hughes, who was appointed on 29 June, and only 19 freemen, all of them honorary (seven resident and 12 non-resident), had been added by the end of 1829.13
On 15 Mar. 1830 the election committee appointed to consider Dering’s petition, having heard evidence that Ely and Nevill had between them ‘almost criminally subjugated’ the borough, determined that the right of election lay in those freemen who ‘had served apprenticeships’ or ‘were resident therein at the time of their admission to their respective freedoms’, and that persons serving a ‘seven-years apprenticeship’ were ‘entitled to the freedom’ and ‘to vote at elections’. The votes of some non-resident freemen were accordingly disallowed, and a number of rejected ones admitted, and Dering was declared elected.14 This decision, as the boundary commissioners later observed, left ‘considerable doubt’ about the ‘illegality of admitting freemen when non-resident’ under the so-called ‘New Rules’ of Charles II, and was even considered to be ‘contrary to law’ by the Irish attorney-general Henry Joy, who nevertheless pointed out that it was ‘equal or superior to law, as the House is sole judge in matters concerning its own privileges’.15 A jubilant Wexford Herald predicted that the seating of Dering would effect a ‘complete radical reform’ in the corporation, which would ‘no longer be in the hands of strangers and aliens, and worse than both, natives leagued with them in the ungracious attempt to deprive their fellow citizens of the rights to which they were legally entitled’; but by the 1830 dissolution only 43 new freemen had been admitted ‘by apprenticeship or servitude’, 26 of whom were apparently ‘non-resident’.16 A petition from the merchants and traders, complaining of the ‘unjust, illegal and constitutional compact’ between Ely and Nevill as revealed in the published proceedings of the election committee, and of freedoms that had ‘lately been conferred upon a number of the staff of the Wexford militia, of which Ely is the colonel’, was presented, 16 Mar. One against any increase in the duty on Irish spirits was presented by Dering, 18 June 1830.17
At the 1830 general election Dering offered again, declaring his ‘most determined and decided opposition’ to the ‘unconstitutional measures’ of ‘last session’, his support for ‘retrenchment and economy’ and ‘all those persons’ engaged in the Irish tobacco trade, and promising to ‘always vote for reform when he found abuse’. William Wigram again came forward as a ‘member of a family long serviceable to Wexford’, insisting that he was ‘perfectly independent of all parties’ and would oppose ‘all measures which were injurious to the commerce of this town’ and British shipping. A two-day contest ensued, during which it was alleged that Wigram offered to spend £2,000 on improving the harbour ‘provided he was returned’ and ‘made various promises of places in the East India Company’s service’. After the mayor had ‘again rejected some late demands’ to admit apprenticed freemen, many of whom allegedly ‘stood for hours humbly requesting that the freeman’s oath might be administered to them, in order that they might vote for Dering’, Wigram was returned with a majority of three. He denied having interfered ‘directly or indirectly in obtaining a single vote’ and insisted that if the assessor and the returning officer had ‘acted wrongly in any manner, they were entirely themselves to answer for it’. A dinner was held in his honour at the town’s Wigram Club, which had been established in 1825 to mark his father’s birthday.18 On 13 Sept. 1830 the corporation, anticipating that Dering would petition ‘on precisely the same grounds which decided the committee in his favour in the last session’, admitted 367 inhabitants ‘indiscriminately’ to their freedoms, of whom some 300 were Catholics. (Opponents of these admissions later challenged their legality, citing a clause in the charter which required a ‘majority’ of burgesses and freemen to be present at all elections of corporate officers, even though this had ‘never been observed’.)19 Dering’s petition against the return, complaining of the ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ conduct of Mayor Hughes, who had ‘refused many persons entitled to vote’ and ‘acted as the partisan’ of Ely, was presented, 4 Nov. 1830. The committee determined that Wigram, whose return had been reckoned a gain by the Wellington ministry, had been unduly elected and seated Dering, 21 Feb. 1831.20 Dering’s attempt to ‘induce the committee to censure’ Hughes for his conduct as returning officer, however, was denounced as ‘contemptible’ by the local press, who argued that it placed him ‘in the same vortex of infamy with those bigoted and illiberal exclusionists’ who had ‘satiated their revenge’ on Hughes ‘for his manly and praiseworthy conduct’ in ‘admitting his Catholic fellow townsmen promiscuously to their freedom’. Dering was further pilloried for his vote against the Grey ministry’s reform bill, in favour of which a petition was presented to the Commons, 22 Mar., and to the Lords from the corporation, 23 Mar. 1831.21
At the 1831 general election Dering stood again, promising to ‘prove that he had never by word or deed violated those liberal principles which I professed’ and claiming that the electors had been ‘misled’ about his conduct. Daniel O’Connell* informed Lord Duncannon*, the government whip, that the ‘town declares a determination to put out Dering, though not determined who to put in’, 27 Apr. Hughes was rumoured, but in the event he offered his interest to Charles Arthur Walker of Belmont, a local magistrate and ‘thorough reformer’ who, having previously declined the solicitations of the ‘independent freemen’, now came forward as an ‘Irishman of independent principle’, whose politics were ‘liberal’, but in no way ‘revolutionary’. The day before the election Dering, who had allegedly arrived in Wexford ‘unaware’ of the strength of feeling against him and had yet to provide ‘the promised explanation of his parliamentary conduct in propria persona’, was persuaded by his brother Sir William Geary† to submit ‘to the changed circumstances of the times’ and retire, leaving Walker to be returned unopposed.22 The freemen of Wexford, declared the Dublin Evening Post, had ‘rejected with disdain and contempt the man who betrayed their liberties, though put in by the popular interest’. At his celebratory dinner Walker paid tribute to the way in which the Catholics and Protestants had united behind him as ‘an advocate for reform’.23 Dering later complained to Peel that he had ‘been one of the most severe sufferers by the reform bill’, having lost control of ‘three seats’, including ‘Wexford, for which I sat from the time of my coming of age, till the introduction of the bill’.24
In the House Walker supported reform. A petition against the new plan of Irish education reached the Commons, 2 July, and the Lords, 9 July 1832.25 Finding that there was no known boundary, the commissioners proposed to establish one that would include ‘every house that can fairly be considered to belong to the town’ and take ‘in very little land not occupied by buildings’. It was estimated that the reformed constituency would have 230 newly qualified £10 householders and 413 resident freemen, of whom 200 would jointly qualify as householders, but in the event the 1832 registered electorate numbered only 269.26 Walker was returned unopposed as a Liberal at the general election, and sat undisturbed until 1841, when he retired.
Author: Philip Salmon
- 1. This figure excludes the 132 non-resident freemen apparently disfranchised by a decision of the Commons, 15 Mar. 1830, over which there existed ‘considerable doubt’ (PP (1831-2), xliii. 139-44).
- 2. Ibid.; (1835), xxviii. 179-88; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 701.
- 3. Dublin Evening Post, 1 Apr. 1820.
- 4. PP (1830), iv. 357; CJ, lxxxiv. 412; Wexford Herald, 3 June 1829; The Times, 9 Mar. 1830.
- 5. CJ, lxxix. 447.
- 6. Wexford Evening Post, 20 June; Dublin Evening Post, 22 June 1826.
- 7. CJ, lxxxi. 270; lxxxii. 52, 272; lxxxiii. 96; LJ, lix. 161.
- 8. CJ, lxxxiv. 24, 72, 89; LJ, lxi. 57, 82, 335.
- 9. CJ, lxxxiv. 317.
- 10. Wexford Herald, 9, 13, 30 May, 3, 6 June; The Times, 23 May, 9 June 1829; PP (1830), iv. 357.
- 11. Wexford Evening Post, 2, 5 June; Wexford Herald, 6 June 1829.
- 12. CJ, lxxxiv. 412-13.
- 13. Wexford Herald, 24 June, 1 July, 8 July 1829; PP (1830), iv. 349; (1831-2), xliii. 144.
- 14. CJ, lxxxv. 118, 175; The Times, 8, 9, 15 Mar. 1830; PP (1830), iv. 357.
- 15. PP (1831-2), xliii. 139-44.
- 16. Ibid.; Wexford Herald, 20 Mar. 1830.
- 17. CJ, lxxxv. 186, 566.
- 18. Wexford Herald, 4, 7, 11 Aug.; Kilkenny Moderator, 11 Aug. 1830.
- 19. Wexford Herald, 1 Sept. 1830; PP (1831-2), xliii. 141-3; (1835), xxviii. 180.
- 20. CJ, lxxxvi. 26-29, 247, 274; Dublin Evening Post, 24 Feb. 1831.
- 21. Wexford Independent, 25 Feb., 26 Apr. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 415; LJ, lxiii. 363.
- 22. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1800; Wexford Independent, 29 Apr., 3, 6, 10 May; Wexford Herald, 7, 11 May; The Times, 3, 9, 10, 26 May 1831.
- 23. Dublin Evening Post, 5, 12 May; Wexford Independent, 17 May 1831.
- 24. Add. 40405, f. 43.
- 25. CJ, lxxxvii. 448; LJ, lxiv. 362.
- 26. PP (1831-2), xliii. 142-4.