Bribery and boroughs – wooing the voters old style

Berwick's bells ring in Morpeth.
Berwick's bells ring in Morpeth.

ALTHOUGH Morpeth became a Parliamentary Borough in 1553, we know of no contested election before 1695. On that occasion, and again in 1714, the freemen who ‘opposed my Lord’ were punished by having their cattle turned off Cottingwood Common.

Having had two sharp lessons in the space of 20 years, the freemen made the best of the situation. Coercion was no longer necessary. The Earl of Carlisle’s servants controlled the electoral process by keeping the number of freemen down to a hundred or less, and bribing them into voting as their noble master wanted.

Indeed, the freemen invariably received gifts and favours from both the Earl of Carlisle and the candidates themselves. Not every gift, however, was necessarily a bribe. It could be something that benefitted the whole body of freemen and freebrothers, or even the whole town.

In 1690, a Parliamentary candidate gave the bailiffs and burgesses a gift of £100. Very properly, they resolved to lay it out for their mutual benefit and embarked on a five-year scheme to improve Morpeth Common by hoeing. The idea was to clear it of whins so as to provide more grass for the cattle to eat. Since every freeman, freebrother or widow of a freeman or brother had the right to depasture two cattle on Morpeth Common, the gift was widely shared and not a personal bribe.

Another such was the bells given to the town in 1705 by Major-General Edmund Maine, the Governor of Berwick. Maine was born c.1633, possibly at Black Heddon, but equally possibly at Westminster or somewhere in Scotland. He must have begun his military career in about 1651, when he would have been 18. If so, it would almost certainly have been in Cromwell’s New Model Army. Charles II regained the throne in 1660 and the New Model Army was dissolved soon after.

We first hear of Maine eight years later. He was then 35 and a cornet in the Duke of Schomberg’s Regiment of Horse, serving in Portugal as part of an English army sent to assist the Portuguese against the Spanish. Schomberg had a good respect for officers who had served under Cromwell and this is the only hint we have as to Maine’s earlier career.

He went on to serve in France, England, Scotland and Ireland, was a friend of John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, fought under him at the battle of Sedgemoor and was his second-in-command in Ireland. Maine’s fortunes fluctuated with Churchill’s. It was a dangerous time for both men when William of Orange invaded in 1688, but they both came through alright. Maine had already settled down in Northumberland by then; he married Mary, daughter of Colonel Thomas Forster of Adderstone, in or before 1686, was a Justice of the Peace in 1687, and had his estate at Belford.

King William dismissed Churchill from all his offices in 1692 on suspicion of corresponding with the exiled James II. Significantly, Maine resigned his commission soon after. But Churchill came back into favour with the accession of Queen Anne in 1702 and Maine was appointed Governor of Berwick.

In the hope of being elected to Parliament by the freemen of Berwick, Maine offered them a set of six bells as a gift to the town. But they didn’t elect him so he stood for Morpeth instead and had the bells hung in our clock tower. Hence the saying that you can hear the bells of Berwick ringing in Morpeth.

We still have General Maine’s bells. They are dated 1706 so it would appear that he very sensibly waited until after the election before he had them made.

He took command of Newcastle during an attempted Jacobite rebellion in 1707-8, but was old now and suffered from gout. He did not stand in 1708, but toyed with standing for either Morpeth or Berwick again in 1710.

Neither came off. He died in 1711 and was buried at Bamburgh.

The first definite evidence of bribery comes in 1714. There were four candidates for the two seats: Henry, Viscount Morpeth, Christopher, Viscount Castlecomer, Oley (or Alexander) Douglas, and Thomas Renda. Nobody doubted that Lord Morpeth was truly elected. The arguments were over the second seat, which Lord Castlecomer had held in 1710, and Oley Douglas in 1713.

After the election, some of the burgesses petitioned the House of Commons to say that Oley Douglas was guilty of many notorious bribes. Douglas countered that Lord Castlecomer had, through the Earl of Carlisle’s agents, bribed the electors with money, meat and drink, and that the bailiffs refused to admit the sons of freemen to the freelege.

Mr Renda for his part claimed that a majority of the electors had offered to vote for him, but the bailiffs refused to accept their votes. He seems to have fallen into the trap of believing that the free-brothers had the vote, which they did not. In the event, Castlecomer kept the seat.

The Earl of Carlisle’s hegemony was put to the test in 1764 when the freemen went to law and established that his servants could not interfere in the election of new freemen. The result was a sudden large increase in their number, which only reduced gradually over a period of 40 years.

The man behind it was one Francis Eyre, about whom little more is known than that he was a lawyer and not from these parts. Having helped the freemen to assert their rights, he stood for Morpeth three times and was actually elected in 1774, only to be unseated on petition. Eyre finally gave up in 1776, leaving the Earl in undisputed possession of his two seats.

The Universal British Directory, c.1793, was brutally frank about Morpeth’s electoral record:

“This borough is under the immediate and absolute controul of the Earl of Carlifle. Several attempts have been made by the electors to furmount this influence, but they have never been attended with fuccefs.—The number of voters is about two hundred.”

In 1802, a young man called William Ord stood for Morpeth and defeated the Earl’s favoured candidate for the second seat. The contest was expensive, but he was rich. After that, he and the Earl came to an understanding and shared the two seats for the next 30 years.

Factors other than money were at work here. They both supported Parliamentary reform and a repetition of 1802 would be embarrassing. Moreover, Mr Ord was not an upstart like Francis Eyre, but a county gentleman with properties at Whitfield and Fenham, as well as the Newminster Abbey lands to the west of the town. In short, he had a sort of moral right to represent Morpeth.

Morpeth was reduced to one seat by the Reform Act of 1832. At this point, Mr Ord withdrew, lost a bruising contest for South Northumberland, but then represented Newcastle until he finally retired in 1852.

Acknowledgement: Picture by courtesy of Roger Dye, Tower Captain of Morpeth Clock Tower Bellringers. Professor Dye advises me that General Maine’s bells are not quite original, having been recast since they were first hung.