The ancient Corporation of Morpeth consisted of seven companies, which between them embraced every trade.
The members of a company were known as free-brothers, but only those who had been sworn-in in proper form could be burgesses, or freemen, and only they had the vote in Parliamentary elections for the borough.
New freemen were sworn 24 at a time, in set proportions from each company; but by the 18th Century very few new freemen were being made.
There were numbers of free-brothers who had served their time and were over 21, but could not gain the freelege.
The obstruction, which was part genuine and part contrived by the Earl of Carlisle’s agents, rose from the fact that the Tanners either could not, or would not, put forward their six nominees for the freelege.
In desperation, several sets of 18 nominees from the other six companies had demanded to be sworn in, despite being warned against it by the Steward of the Court Leet.
The candidates for the two seats at the general election of 1774 were Peter Delmé, the Hon. William Byron, Francis Eyre and Thomas Charles Bigge. Delmé and Byron were related by marriage to the 4th Earl of Carlisle.
The Returning Officers were the bailiffs, Andrew Fenwick, senior bailiff, and Robert Cooper, junior.
William Woodman’s Morpeth Collectanea, Vol. II, now at Woodhorn, contains a detailed account of what followed:
‘On the 13th day of October last The Bailiffs of the Borough of Morpeth proceeded to the Election of two Burgesses.
‘After the Bailiffs had polled eight or nine of the Burgesses, Mr Eyre or some of his Agents called John Carmichael, one of the persons who were Swore and admitted Burgesses in consequence of Returns made by the Aldermen when there was not at the same time any Return made by the Alderman of the Tanners, whereupon Mr Fenwick and Mr Delme objected to his right of voting....it was agreed by Mr Eyre, the Councel on both sides and indeed all parties that the question should be argued by Councel and that he and all others who were (so) admitted....should be admitted to poll or register according as the Bailiffs determined after hearing arguments on both sides.’
The bailiffs decided against, but allowed that the candidates might record in their ‘cheque books’ the names of those refused, as evidence in any future hearing.
‘After this the Bailiffs proceeded with the poll of the legal and undisputed Freemen but during the course of this there was often a great noise and tumult tho’ not so much as to stop the poll, and Mr Eyre being desired by Mr Bigge and others to speak to the people to keep silence (for no other person could influence them) he did desire them to be silent, but at the same time told them with great warmth of the many services he had done them....and brought them from a state of slavery to that of freedom. Nay that he had been their political Creator.... with many other warm expressions to the same effect.
‘At the close of the poll when the Bailiffs declared the Numbers to be for Mr Delme 119, for Mr Byron 109, for Mr Eyre 100 and for Mr Bigge 82. And that Mr Delme and Mr Byron were duly elected, one William Wood of Morpeth, Weaver, a Freeman, who stood by Mr Eyre’s side, immediately gave a signal to the mob and called out ‘Another false return, Gentlemen, Another false return’ and the same expressions were instantly bellowed out of the Windows to the mob upon the Streets, at the same time it was called out ‘Shutt the door, Shutt the door, Murder the rogues’. Upon which a great concourse of people advanced up to the Benches where the Bailiffs, Candidates &c. were sitting in a furious riotous manner with sticks in their hands.’
Eyre told Byron and Delmé that it was time to be going. Delmé got a blow to the head that left blood running down his face.
Eyre called upon his friends to see them safe home, and went with them himself.
They left, ‘followed by a mob who swore they would kill Delme and Byron, the latter of whom received a violent blow upon his head with a stick from one of the Mob as he went out of the Hall.’
The bailiffs meanwhile were surrounded, and threatened with murder if they did not return Eyre and Bigge: ‘at the same time the Mob tore off their Hatts and Wigs, struck them with sticks and also threw stones at them.’
Some, both in the Hall and the Market Place, called out to murder them, others to throw them out of the windows, upon which the windows were thrown open.
The bailiffs were now prepared to agree to whatever the mob wanted, but the Return, which was presumably complete except for the final details of the result, had got lost in the struggles.
‘Mr Cooper, in order to pacify the Mob, got pen and Ink and wrote on a piece of paper to the following effect, ‘We do hereby return Mr Eyre and Mr Bigge as duly elected’, which the Bailiffs signed, and Mr Cooper read it to the Mob and told them if it was not sufficient they might get any of their attorneys or agents to prepare such a return as they thought proper and they would sign it.’
Some of them took it away, but brought it back directly, saying that it was ‘good for nothing, it was no return’.
As the mob grew more riotous, a blank parchment was brought, on which Cooper wrote a Return as best he could. However, two of the Aldermen demanded to see how the poll stood with the votes of the ‘18 people’ included.
This would take time so the bailiffs offered to leave the Return and the Precept – the notification to hold an election – in some of their hands till next day.
Cooper asked them if they had any objection to Mr Lumsden for this purpose: ‘and on their calling out that they had none, Mr Cooper delivered it to Mr Lumsden who immediately told the Mob he had received it and desired them to go to bed, for if not he would go to his, and in a short time after this the bailiffs got out of the Hall.’
The next morning, the precept and completed return were brought to Mr Eyre. He observed that the bailiffs had not signed the back of the precept, as required.
This done, he demanded that they hand them over to some of his supporters, for them to deliver to the sheriff.
Fenwick and Cooper refused, saying they alone should do so, but Eyre turned abruptly towards the window, outside of which a considerable mob was already assembled.
At this, the bailiffs backed down. Mr Cooper delivered both documents to Mr Lumsden, and the bailiffs never saw them again.