Election Fever 1774

Bristolians traditionally elected two MPs, one a local man, the other with  national clout, so could promote the city  in the capital, so notions of party allegiance tended to come second to this.

This piece is about the disputed election of 1774, at the height of the dispute with those pesky, ungrateful  North American colonials. It involves the long standing local MP Lord Clare, but  also the great orator Edmund Burke, and Henry Cruger, the only man to have been in local and national government in both Britain and the United States.

Bristol in the 18th century had a long and expensive history of disputed elections. It was so well known that when in the 19th century debates arose about enfranchising such new towns as Manchester and Birmingham, opponents still pointed to the expense and allegations of corruption in Bristol, with its broad franchise of mostly artisans and small merchants. The 2 disputed elections of 1754 and 1760 had allegedly cost a total of £60,000, an extraordinary sum which lefty supporters reeling for years after. The right to vote was a result of having been born, or apprenticed or marrying the daughter of either, or it could be purchased. Rumours especially were laid against the long serving Bristol MP Lord Clare, of buying votes, even so-called prostitution, whereby the daughters of freemen were sold in marriage – if only temporarily – for their voting rights.

By the end of 1773 there were major problems between Britain and the North American colonies. Bristol’s economy was heavily tied to the Atlantic trade, and many families had relatives in the colonies. Political problems saw much debate on the state of trade and many bankruptcies were ruining established families. Both Bristol MPs were pro government, ie trying to force the colonies into submission, but for many years in Bristol there had been rumblings of disapproval which broke through at the election of 1774.

The fledgling Whig and Tory parties were usually evenly matched, their policies often barely separable, so efforts were made to put forward a candidate from each party. Bristol’s MPs were both pro government, ie trying to control the colonies y force. At 72 Lord Clare had represented the city for 20 years. As Robert Nugent he had made his wealth by marrying rich widows who soon conveniently died, a habit for which Walpole coined the term ‘nugentism’. He was a Whig, but supported the Tory government line, He had good contacts at Court, had a broad, perhaps superficial knowledge of events. In times of hardship he was a generous benefactor to the poor of the city, hiring ships to import subsidised corn.

His running mate was local merchant Matthew Brickdale, a man off some wealth, inherited from his notoriously scrooge-like uncle. He lived simply which did not endear him either to his fellow MPs or to the ever thirsty potential voters. Though in January 1776 he began the collection for the poor with a donation of 300g.

A political sea change had followed the visit of radical MP John Wilkes to the West Country in 1772, which saw Bristolians  attending public meetings for the unusual act of giving their representatives instructions. When Wilkes was imprisoned, petitions of support were signed in Bristol for Gloucester, Somerset, and the city itself. The Somerset petition alone had 2,000 signatures. This seems to have been when Henry Cruger’s name first became mentioned as a candidate, though he had clearly been involved in politics for some time, having at the age of only 26 been chosen to visit London to object to the Stamp tax in 1766. He was young, educated and American. He married the daughter of a wealthy local linen draper who was also a leader of the radicals. He understood both sides of the colonial argument, so was ideally placed to bring peace to the growing crisis. He seems to have had little support among the local gentry, his core voters being the artisans south of the river in Temple and St Mary Redcliffe parishes. He was a former Tory and many though he remained one. William Dyer, diarist and friend of the Wesleys, dismissed him as leader of the mob. He supported reducing the hours of parliament as a way to combat the endemic corruption. He was also a member of the ‘Flying Squadron’ a group of young bucks who defied the tradition of always having the same seat in the same inn; they refused to eat and drink at the same place twice running.

The hallmark of this election was the non-contact between the various groups. Lord Clare was never actually rejected. His supporters just seemed to fade away whilst he made no apparent effort to prevent them. Maybe he had had enough and saw the times were changing. The Tories offered Brickdale again, who should have worked with Clare to retain the old balance. But there was a new balance: Brickdale was the local candidate while Clare represented the wider, national position. And to complicate matters even further, there were people who called themselves Whigs by virtue of supporting whoever was in power, so trying to make sense out of voting habits at this time is fraught with problems.

What is clear is that much of the electorate wanted real change; the survival of the city’s trade depended upon it. So several Whigs who objected to Cruger’s radicalism began hunting for a moderate with enough national stature to replace Lord Clare. They found Edmund Burke who had already accepted the rotten borough of Maldon in Yorkshire. Cruger and his supporters seem never to have been consulted on this, as they maintained their desire to stand alone throughout. Cruger did make an early attempt to meet Burke but seems was rebuffed.

Though both stood for change and reconciliation on the American policy, Cruger was a genuine democrat, desirous of cleaning up political corruption and wished to represent the views of the electorate. Burke was less suited to dealing with the demanding Bristol electors. As he later claimed, he was not a member for Bristol, but a member of parliament. At the start of the election the 2 Whigs were described as rivals. By the end they were called enemies. Cruger was a popular local candidate who could easily beat Brickdale. Burke had visited the city several times, his father in law and friends lived nearby in Bath, but he had made no effort to establish links with the city. Yet despite Burke’s higher stature, he was placed second to Cruger on the poll. He was largely unknown, and his Irish links led to accusations of being pro-Catholic, pro-Dissenters, even a complete non-believer, any of which was nonsense from his record at university to his presence in the house of commons. Plus he refused to donate to his own political costs, so his initial handful of supporters had a real job on their hands.

Elections were generally fought on local issues, with exchanges often by anonymous authors tending to be scurrilous or worse. In early October one of Brickdale’s supporters, a future MP for the city, seems to have crossed a line with


One other Candidate

To Represent this Fallen City in Parliament.

He must be wild, disipated (sic), uncultured, American without Abilities, Application, Connection, Interest or Qualification: he must also be debauched, debilitated, vain and insincere: he is not required to be either a Historian, Grammarian or Orator; if he can in any public meeting repeatedly exclaim My Good God Gentlemen! He will be sure to meet with Encouragement and Support in his Important Occasion even from those who in any other, have insulted, abused and rejected him as undeserving of any Confidence, Comendation or Regard. – CIVIS

This rather suggests the Tories had their backs against the wall from the outset. The outraged but highly civil radicals replied the same day. Far from being part of the mob, they seem to be the most civil

To Mr George Daubney

To My Dear Sir,

Be not alarm’d. In this address, I will only give you a little wholesome Advice. You are by Birth a Gentleman – you are a Historian – you are a Gramarian – you are an accomplished Orator of Mr Brickdale’s party – but very unfortunately Sir, your Conduct does not exhibit the least Trace of what a gentleman by Birth ought to be by Education. Refrain your unprovok’d and illiberal Abuse of Mr Cruger or at least confine it within the walls of the Taylor’s Hall, where with a few Select friends you make such unequamous Nominations for the wholle city of Bristol. The character of your friend Mr Brickdale is far from being invulnerable, and unless I am mistaken your’s  Sir, is not of immaculate purity. The friends of Mr Cruger I am convinced, treat your scurrility with contempt, their success promotes your Rage and your Rage excites only their Compassion. I Have a few precious Anecdotes and am you’rs as you behave


When the polls finally opened on Friday October 7, the city was offered a choice of 2 Whig and 1 Tory candidates, in Clare, Cruger and Brickdale. Burke’s main supporter the Quaker industrialist Richard Champion had asked for notice if Clare changed his mind about the election. When Clare saw the massive support for Cruger, he declined to sit, claiming he wished to save the cost of yet another disputed election. This was at 1am on the Saturday, so the information was sent to Champion several miles north of the city at Henbury, who then informed his neighbour and fellow Burke supporter Harford, at Blaise estate. They then sent a message to Samuel Peach at Tockington Manor, even further north which reached him at 4am. It is not clear if he was in favour of bringing in the outsider; as father in law to Cruger his support should have been elsewhere. But as Burke refused to contribute to his own campaign funds, someone like peach, with a fortune of perhaps £80,000 would be essential for  success.

By the time the Court opened at 10am the same morning, Harfourd and Champion put Burke forward as their candidate. Brickdale objected on the grounds that the polls ahd closed the previous day, which had been confirmed by the withdrawal of Lord Clare. The sherrifs allowed voting to continue long enough to establish all candidates had support, then took legal advice till Monday. Burke was summoned from London, but he had left for Maldon so his brother arrived on Monday in his stead. His candidacy was accepted, so the 3 way dispute began in earnest.

Edmund Burke finally arrived in Bristol after over 44 miles on bone jarring roads. His first act was to speak on the hustings, claimed to be ‘the first instance of a great orator and statesman using the platform for the purpose of bringing himself into frank and unreserved communication with the people.’ [Jephstone p 100] Which sounds unlikely but perhaps tells us much about previous MPs.

It was common practice for supporters to get as many men as possible to take up their voting rights in the run up to an election. But in 1774 about 1,000 paid their fees in the days before the polls opened And throughout the election they continued to sign up, which is why the electing dragged on so long and became one of the points of legal debate.

Cruger and Buke though nominally running mates, kept separate bases – Cruger at the Fountain Inn, Burke at the Bush Tavern, and never appeared together in public. The main, or only contact between the two seems to have been Thomas Symons, local attorney who seemed to be a sort of liason officer. Though Clare refused to sit, people still voted for hi. Cruger was from the outset, the clear leader; the battle was close for the second seat. On 27 October Brickdale refused to close the poll, hoping to pick, up outvoters – ie local merchants who had moved to country seats. Burke had support of Bristolians in London. Brickdale’s announcement of his intention to petition parliament over the legality of the elections was a tacit admission of his defeat, but the polls did not close till by agreement, on 2 November. After a 3 hour discussion over the legality of late admissions, Cruger and Burke were declared the victors. Brickdale’s threat to appeal was mocked by Burke in his election speech :”here is an attempt for a general massacre of suffrages; an attempt of a promiscuous carnage of friends and foes, to exterminate about 2000 votes including 700 polled for the gent himself, who now complains and who would destroy the friends whom he has obtained only because he couldn’t obtain as many as he wishes.” Burke showed his skills as an orator by turning an act which may have been fraudulent ie the mass registration of illegal voters, into the liberation of the masses by giving the vote to so many.

So much about this election broke the established patterns. The Corporation and Merchants and clergy were generally very conservative in their voting; this election saw a much greater than usual spread of their votes. Some 33% of the voters wasted plumped for a single candidate, usually Cruger, so wasting half their rights, and hinting that they had been coerced in some way. Some of Cruger’s supporters hated Burke so much they gave their second vote to Brickdale, a pattern confirmed by them being the target of much of Burke’s electoral propaganda. And it was this repeated breaking with tradition that was the subject of Brickdale’s challenge of the result. In the a sense of national, or even local rules, Parliament had to make its decisions based on local precedents.

Brickdale’s petition covered the following points:

  1. Problems with entering a candidate late – depriving earlier voters of polling for them. Burke was only a day late so this was disregarded.
  2. Whether a man can be nominated in his absence. This point was even easier to dismiss. In Bristol, a candidate had been chosen whilst in the West Indies. Worse, in 1624 Thomas Estcourt had been nominated in Gloucestershire and voted in as an MP even though he had objected to being put forward.
  3. Admissions of electors after the polls commenced. This was more of a problem, as it had been standard practice not to admit latecomers, and other electorates had a similar policy. But in Bristol, it was not laid down as a rule, so the extra votes were accepted. .
  4. 4. Bribery of voters. This was a common complaint in the city. In this instance, it was shown that Cruger and Burke’s supporters had paid the admission costs for many voters, which was shown to be common practice. But the candidates had not been involved, and there were no promises as to their voting choices, so the claim was not accepted.

After 10 days the parliamentary committee declared all allegations unproven and the election results sound. Cruger returned to Bristol and was treated to a warm homecoming, through a triumphal arch erected rather pointedly at the end of the newly completed Clare Street. More details of this incident were published in the Kentish Gazette of mar 8 1775. He was met in Bath in the morning by a great number of gentlemen in carriages who accompanied him to Keynsham, the principal body of his friends were waiting to receive hi. On his arrival there, eh left his own carriage for a phaeton in which he processed into the city, but so many vehicles were involved t took 4 hours to cover the 5 miles, and the roads lined with masses of people.

“As soon as they came to the city, their arrival was proclaimed by firing of cannons, ringing of bells &c. The procession entered at Temple-gate, went along the Borough Wall, through St Thomas Street, up High Street, and halted at the Council house. While Mr Cruger got out of his carriage and paid his respects tot e Right worshipful the Mayor and Aldermen; afterwards . it proceeded down Clare street, at the bottom of which was erected an elegant triumphal arch, quite across the street, covered with scarlet, and on the top were placed 2 flags, 3 ships; the King’s Arms in the middle and on the other side, the arms of our Members, under which a long scroll, whereon was wrote (sic) in large capital letters “Cruger and Burke”. The arch and the different columns were decorated with beautiful festoons; and on the whole made a very grand appearance, from whence they crossed the drawbridge, and went along the College-green up into Park street , where the Horsemen fell back on each side and Mr Cruger was set down at his own door.”

Burke declined the celebrations, claiming parliamentary business kept him in London. This may well have been  true enough, with the country heading towards war. But he also declined a dinner held in April to honour Thomas Symons for his efforts; a presentation was made on behalf of the MP but his absence must have confirmed many rumours about his commitment tot he city, and a forewarning that he would not be re-elected.


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