‘Horsham is Lady Irwin’s Borough’: the power of the 18th Century political widow

We continue our series on election campaigning through the centuries today, with an example of the power aristocratic women could hold in the pre-1832 electoral system. Elaine Chalus, Professor of British History in Bath Spa University, discusses the story of Lady Irwin, who recently featured in BBC2’s Suffragettes Forever

When Frances, Lady Irwin, died in 1807, the 11th duke of Norfolk — the notoriously hard-drinking ‘Jockey’ — finally achieved a goal that had eluded him for twenty years: he gained control over the borough of Horsham in East Sussex. He had contended, overtly and covertly, against Lady Irwin’s interest in the borough from shortly after his accession to the title in 1786. The struggle had cost him dearly. William Albery, in his history of the borough, estimated that Norfolk paid out over £70,000 in burgage purchases, repeated contested elections, and petitions to Parliament. But success was to prove dearer still. Despite all of his efforts, Norfolk only gained control over the borough after Lady Irwin’s death — and, ironically, not long before the Commons once again overturned the election of his candidates and seated her candidates in their place. In the end, he was forced to buy the political interest in the borough from Lady Irwin’s daughter — for the record sum of £91,475.

Lady Irwin’s electoral battle with Norfolk was remarkable in terms of its length and cost, but, as an eighteenth-century aristocratic widow striving to preserve her family’s political interest, she was not unique. What made her different from many other politically active aristocratic widows was that she was not safeguarding the family interest until a son or grandson came of age, but preserving it in order to bequeath it, as a valuable form of property, to her daughter.

Prior to electoral reform in 1832, Horsham was one of twenty-nine English burgage boroughs. In these boroughs the vote was attached to property not people (i.e., to ancient tenements that had, from time immemorial, the right of voting); thus, whoever — women, as well as men — owned burgages had the right to vote. This involved two groups of women directly in local electoral politics: the women of the electorate, who might own, inherit or purchase individual burgages, and the women of the political élite, who might similarly control enough burgages to have a significant or controlling interest in the borough. While Vivienne Larminie has recently discovered the voting record of two seventeenth-century female burgage-holders in Heytesbury, it was customary practice by the eighteenth-century for female burgage-holders to appoint proxies to vote for them.

Lady Irwin’s hold on the borough was theoretically straightforward: she needed to control the majority of the burgages. In reality this was complicated, because burgages in Horsham constituted a poorly recorded collection of houses, barns, stables, fields and small plots of land; moreover, voters had to be included on the burgage roll and admitted at a Court Baron (the local manorial court) before they could vote. And the Court Baron was controlled by the duke of Norfolk and run by his steward, Thomas Charles Medwin, a sharp-eyed lawyer who was also his chief political agent.

Medwin, who had already achieved a certain reputation as a specialist in manorial law, had realized that with a certain amount of sharp dealing and imaginative interpretation of the franchise it might be possible to overturn Lady Irwin’s interest in Horsham. He began by packing the annual Courts Baron of 1787–9 with Norfolk supporters. This ensured that the thirty-six burgesses whom Lady Irwin and her agents had secured in Horsham between 1774 and 1787 (when there had been no Courts Baron), and who would have consolidated her control over the borough, were not included on the burgage roll. He then persuaded Norfolk to contest Horsham in the 1790 election and began to work quietly to win over the thirty independent burgesses and buy up enough of the remaining burgages to give Norfolk the controlling interest in the borough. His plan was formalized and committed to paper in May 1788, in what Albery termed the ‘Deepdene Memorandum’. In it, Norfolk agreed to put up two candidates, Timothy Shelley (Medwin was married to Shelley’s second cousin) and another unspecified gentleman, whereas Medwin and another Horsham lawyer promised to devote themselves to ‘purchasing Freehold Burgages, for the Duke of Norfolk, for the purposes of securing a future Interest in the Borough’.

Lady Irwin would, however, prove a far more formidable opponent than expected. By 1788, she was a woman in her fifties with a lifetime of political experience. She had emerged as a political figure in her own right soon after her husband’s death in 1778. As early as August 1779, her name had appeared on a list of leading landowners — alongside the duke of Rutland, Lords Scarborough and Bristol, and Sir Gilbert Heathcote — at a meeting in support of a Mr Monson’s candidature for Lincoln. The 1780 general election saw her conduct her first campaign in Horsham. As she informed her friend Lady Gower, she was pleased with the results:

my little Horsham business went on flourishingly, & my vanity is flatter’d at the idea of being personally well with the Burgesses. A dreadful opposition broke out against Mr Lascelles who had been so effectually undermined that he thinks it prudent to withdraw himself, & the County [Yorks.] is now deliver’d up to Associators & Oliverians, all the little Interest I had was at Mr Lascelles’s Command for I hate the Association. [PRO, 30/29/4/2/51, fos 209v–10]

A lifelong supporter of the King’s ministers, Lady Irwin dedicated her influence and the seats at her command to the Administration (Lord North’s and later William Pitt’s). ‘Horsham is Lady Irwin’s borough’, wrote John Robinson prior to the 1784 election, noting that it might need ‘a little more management’ and allocating her £7,000 accordingly.

The battle for control of Horsham began in earnest in 1788. By July, Medwin and Shelley were purchasing burgages, conveying the new acquisitions to themselves so as to avoid throwing suspicion on Norfolk. By the time that Lady Irwin arrived in Horsham for her annual three-week summer visit, she had been tipped off, however. Shelley’s purchase of Mary Somersett’s three messuages and garden for the exceptionally large sum of £1,750 (rental value £69/9/0) had not gone unnoticed. This marked the beginning of the contest. Lady Irwin doubled the length of her stay: three weeks became six, and she devoted her energies to countering Medwin and spurring her agents into action.

She immediately began to canvass the borough’s independent burgesses by letter and in person. She also began to treat, inviting them flatteringly to a venison feast at the King’s Head. Shelley responded with a canvass in turn and Norfolk even sponsored an opposition feast at the Anchor Inn. Lady Irwin knew that defeating Norfolk would rest upon out-persuading and/or out-bidding him. By 8 September, Horsham was in the midst of a purchasing war and the Sussex Advertiser announced that ‘houses that have votes have increased near a thousand per cent in their value’.

These inflated sums were very appealing to many burgage-holders, but not all sold. Despite Medwin’s best efforts, for instance, he was unable to obtain widow Elizabeth Bridger’s burgage. Her determination to maintain her independence and her political interest echoes that of Lady Irwin herself. Widow Bridger had, through strict settlement, inherited a life interest in three burgages and, like her aristocratic counterpart, maintained these intact so that she could pass them on to her daughter.

It is a testimony to Lady Irwin’s tenacity and the success of her campaign that by the time of the 1790 election Norfolk’s only chance of defeating her candidates — her son-in-law, Lord William Gordon, and James Baillie, a West India merchant — rested upon Medwin’s ability to use the Court Baron to disallow the new Irwin votes. Lady Irwin was prepared for this and had her agents concentrate on ensuring that the forty-two faggot voters (voters created by by holding subdivisions in a larger property), which she knew Medwin would try to disallow, would meet the stipulations laid out in the Last Determination of the borough in 1715.

Medwin ran true to form. He scheduled the Court Baron for two hours before the election. He then arrived half an hour late and wasted time by adjourning the court to the Anchor Inn (Norfolk’s public house), before allowing Hurst to make a long speech proposing a Norfolk voter. After Ellis, Lady Irwin’s agent, successfully objected to this voter, Medwin spent the rest of the time before the election looking out the window, ignoring everyone. This ensured that none of Lady Irwin’s new voters were admitted or inscribed on the Rolls of Burgesses. Her candidates were therefore narrowly defeated. An unsatisfactory scrutiny followed; then a petition to parliament. Once there, Medwin’s sharp dealings were quickly exposed and Lady Irwin’s attention to detail triumphed: Norfolk’s candidates were promptly unseated. Neither side gave up, however. Norfolk would contest the seat again in 1806. Once again, his sharp dealing would be exposed on petition and Lady Irwin’s candidates duly elected.


Professor Elaine Chalus is author of Elite Women in English Political Life, 1754–1790 (Oxford, 2005) and sits on the Editorial Board of the History of Parliament.

You can read all in our series on historical elections here – watch out for more posts as the campaign continues!

One thought on “‘Horsham is Lady Irwin’s Borough’: the power of the 18th Century political widow

  1. A very interesting article. One small factual correction: Horsham is in West, rather than East, Sussex.

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