‘Bribery’ wins the day in a disputed vote

'Bon Accord', the Rev Robert Trotter's house in Newgate Street, Morpeth.
'Bon Accord', the Rev Robert Trotter's house in Newgate Street, Morpeth.

Francis Eyre was the son of a shoemaker in Truro. He was articled to an attorney there, but later moved to London where he practised in trade and plantation law, and becoming rich, bought estates in England and Jamaica.

He wanted a seat in Parliament, and a mutual friend, John Spottiswoode, introduced him to the Rev Robert Trotter, Presbyterian minister, who became his chief supporter in Morpeth.

Many tradesmen in the town were qualified to become freemen and vote, but were prevented by the machinations of the Earl of Carlisle. Eyre paid their legal expenses to compel the Earl to swear-in all new freemen who were properly presented at his Court Leet.

He stood for election in 1768 but was defeated. He tried again in 1774, but many of his supporters had their votes refused.

Peter Delmé and William Byron, both related to the Earl of Carlisle, were elected with 119 and 109 votes respectively. Eyre got 100 votes, and Thomas Charles Bigge 82.

A riot ensued, and Delmé, Byron and the bailiffs were threatened with murder.

Knowing that the final decision lay with the House of Commons, the bailiffs gave in. The amended results were: Eyre 162, Delmé 150, Byron 140 and Bigge 132.

It appears from this that there were 205 undisputed voters, and 87 disputed, of whom at least 31 voted for Delmé or Byron.

The following is from the archives at Woodhorn:

‘Surry Street, London.

2d. December 1774.

“Dear Sir, Yesterday I was sworn in...as Member for Morpeth. – This day I expected to have sent you a Petition for the Burgesses to sign & one for Mr Bigge also,... which I hope I shall get done Time enough to send by to Morrow’s Post.

‘I have seen Mr Spottiswoode. He brought nothing new – I think a petition against me certain & am preparing for it....

‘My best Compliments to Mr Snaith & I am much obliged to him for the Trouble he has taken....

‘I am much obliged to Mr James and Mrs James for their Assiduity, let this suffice as a letter for them until I can send the Petitions. I think I have received all his Letters & the Affidavits some of which are very strong as well to Bribery as to Fenwick’s swearing he never would return me.... Mr James says he wod. defer sending me the Remainder of the affidavits till next Post — That Remdr. I never reced.

‘Adieu – God bless you and believe me most truly Yours, Fras Eyre.’

He wrote again on the 8th:

‘I wrote you last Friday &...Saturday in which last I enclosed a Petition for some of my Friends to sign which I hope you attended to & that I shall receive it to Morrow.

‘The Villainous Designs of the Rascally Bailiffs & more rascally French Jew have been defeated – Their Petition...is to be heard the 24th of next January – I spoke upon a great National Question very coolly relative to Mr Grenville’s Bill, & the Public say I got much Honor by it,....However, I rather lost my temper when I spoke upon my own Affair, but it had its Effect & got me many Friends – Lord John Cavendish – Sir Edward Astley – Mr Fuller – Mr Mackworth &c. &c. Who all spoke for me.

‘I enclose a Petition for Mr Bigge to sign....This Petition must be returned & in my Hands by Saturday the 17th instant, the next Monday being the last day for receiving Petitions....I have not Time to Night to answer Jo. Clarke’s Letter – Pray present my kind Compliments to him & Mrs Clarke....Say I am in good Spirits & that every Body says we shall succeed – Adieu, God bless you, I am tore to Pieces for Time, but am ever most sincerely,

‘Yours , Fras Eyre.’

The ‘rascally bailiffs’ were Andrew Fenwick and Robert Cooper. The Earl controlled the choice of bailiffs so they would have been staunch supporters of his, and Fenwick was often chosen. Swearing that ‘he never would return me’ was a serious matter since, as returning officer, he ought to have been impartial.

The ‘French Jew’ was Germain Lavie, not in fact a Jew, but a London solicitor of Huguenot descent, brought north to bribe the freemen, which he did regardless of expense.

Mr Snaith, the Jameses and the Clarkes were evidently some of Mr Eyre’s active friends in Morpeth, but we know nothing else about them.

There were four petitions to the House.

Byron’s states that he should have been returned, along with Delmé, and is supported by another petition from ‘several Freemen and Electors’.

Another, from ‘the several Aldermen and free Burgesses’ accuses Andrew Fenwick of corruption and of soliciting votes for Delmé and Byron.

Mr Bigge’s alleges that Delmé and Byron’s votes had been got by ‘corrupt, illegal and undue Practices of Andrew Fenwick, and of the Returning Officers, and others, Agents for the said Delmé and Byron,’ and that, ‘by the Partiality of the Returning Officers...he was not returned as he ought to have been.’

It is clear that Francis Eyre drew up both the last two petitions, against tight deadlines and uncertain mails.

In spite of all his optimism and hard work, he was unseated in January.

But then, in June 1776:

‘The Death of Mr Byron makes all Apologys for my not Writing for some time past needlefs....Distracted and Disappointed as I have been, no Wonder that I did not write,... I wanted and wished to recover myself, And tho’ I am not wholly what I was, I am in every respect the same in Regard to Morpeth,...and as I have frequently pledged myself to stand a contest whenever a Vacancy should happen if my Friends would Support me, I now beg & intreat you will instantly Convene my Friends and Canvass for me.’

Trotter replied that there were 194 freemen, ‘two of whom are under Age, and three in America, so that there is a possibility that 189 may Vote.

‘We heartily wish, we could say that Mr Eyre had 95 certain,...but Monsieur Lavie has introduced Such a System of Corruption...that Nothing certain can be said, though I believe many of them are Sadly disappointed...their Mountains of gold are dwindled into Mole Hills.’

There is, he says, ‘no probability of Success without the Gentlemen of the County will warmly espouse your Interest,...I pray God...blefs you (and) give you a reward for all your Service & Sufferings for Morpeth. And am Dr Sir, in all circumstances,

‘Yours most faithfully & affectly, Rob Trotter.’

Most of the freemen succumbed to the bribes, and Lord Carlisle’s nominee won by a large majority.

Mr Eyre finally entered Parliament in 1780, but as MP for Great Grimsby, and as the lord of the manor’s chosen candidate.

l Acknowledgement: Thanks to Miss Mary Creighton for information on Bon Accord.