250 years ago, in April 1769, the electors of Middlesex went to the polls: the third by-election they had experienced that year since one of their two MPs, John Wilkes, had been expelled from Parliament. Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the House of Lords 1660-1832 Section, examines the background to the election and how Parliament resolved the crisis.
John Wilkes had originally been returned as MP for Aylesbury in 1757 as part of a three-way pact involving his friend, Thomas Potter, and William Pitt the Elder. Disappointed in his ambitions he had joined the opposition and become the proprietor of a scurrilous newspaper, The North Briton, which was responsible for launching a series of ever more audacious attacks on the ministry of Lord Bute. These resulted in Wilkes being arrested in 1763, freed after claiming parliamentary privilege, fighting a duel and ultimately fleeing to the continent to avoid his convictions and to nurse a nasty wound to the groin. In 1764 he was declared an outlaw and expelled from Parliament.
Four years later, Wilkes staged a comeback carefully timed to coincide with the 1768 general election. Rebuffed when he tried to stand for the City of London, he turned instead to the populous and notoriously rowdy constituency of Middlesex and, having entered the contest late, emerged at the top of the poll. The administration refused to accept the result, though, and in February 1769 Parliament overturned it, calling a by-election later that month. Wilkes was returned again unchallenged. The same thing happened in March but in April the government finally assumed control of the process and was able to produce a candidate to stand against Wilkes.
According to one contemporary newspaper ‘every gentleman in the county’ had been ‘applied to in vain’ to take on Wilkes before Henry Lawes Luttrell, at that time MP for Bossiney, put his name forward. The newspaper could not ‘find any freeholder that knows him’, and claimed he did not have ‘a shilling property in the county.’ He was consequently urged to withdraw to save himself from ridicule. One of the odder objections to him standing, which was also related in the press, was that one of Luttrell’s ancestors had sold his soul to the devil with the result that no member of the family possessed a shadow. This minor objection clearly carried little weight. In his letter to the freeholders of Middlesex announcing his candidature Luttrell underlined his connexion with the area, insisting that it was ‘his native county’, but his true motivation for standing was a very personal enmity for Wilkes. As a professional soldier he may have disdained Wilkes, who enjoyed parading in the uniform coat of a militia colonel, to which he no longer had any claim. But there was clearly more besides. Luttrell had raised the Wilkes question in his maiden speech in the Commons in May 1768. Complaining that no one had so far mentioned Wilkes’s name, he insisted on doing so, along with a throw-away reference to a line from Henry IV:
I will mention it, though there be enchantment in the sound; though a starling in the gallery should catch the sound, and convey it to him…
He had continued to nag Parliament on the matter at intervals through 1768 reaching a head in January 1769 when he demanded that Wilkes be expelled the House and punished, before offering to take on the people’s champion himself. Luttrell was assured that if he was willing to stand he would be returned come what may. This promise appeared to be confirmed by a letter posted in the Middlesex Journal or Chronicle of Liberty, in which the author recorded having discovered that should Luttrell poll just five votes and Wilkes 2,995, of the 3,000 available, the Commons had determined to hand the election to Luttrell:
I cannot believe this strange report; for it has always been a standing rule, that the members of that house, will support their privileges to prevent the growth of corruption, and the court party from having the ascendancy in the house… [Middlesex Journal or Chronicle of Liberty, 4 April 1769]
In the end, the election of 13 April ended up being contested by four candidates. Wilkes, who polled far and away the most votes, tallying 1,143; Luttrell who came second with 296; and a third entrant, William Whitaker, who managed to garner just five votes (presumably one of them his own). A fourth, Captain Roche, according to some reports retired before the poll, another suggested that he did stand, greeted by laughter, and secured no votes. As had been arranged, Luttrell was declared the winner.
Two days later, the Commons debated Luttrell’s challenged return. Arguing against, Alderman Beckford insisted:
if you insert the name of Mr Luttrell instead of that of Mr Wilkes, it will be doing great violence to the freeholders; who have not elected him…
Charles James Fox, on the other hand, characterized the dispute as ‘a contest between the House of Commons and the most contemptible part of the freeholders of… Middlesex’. Following lengthy debates, the House resolved to accept Luttrell’s election by 197 to 143 votes: a majority of fifty-four. A subsequent vote confirmed this decision with a slightly larger majority.
In many ways this proved a pyrrhic victory for Luttrell. He had been pelted by dirt on his way to the election, and quit the hustings early to avoid being attacked. He continued to be subjected to a torrent of abuse in the press and according to Horace Walpole avoided walking in the streets for fear of being assaulted. He was not the only one to be threatened. One newspaper reported that the regulars at a pub in St Martin’s Lane ordered the landlord to change his supplier as the brewer had been one of those to vote for Wilkes’s expulsion. At the next general election in 1774 Luttrell returned to Bossiney, and during the remainder of his career represented two further seats, eventually dying in post as MP for Ludgershall in 1821. In the meantime he succeeded his father, Simon, as earl of Carhampton in the Irish peerage, and continued to hold – and express – a range of uncompromising views on topics ranging from reform to abolition of the slave trade (which he opposed). He was summed up by the Prince Regent at the time of Peterloo as ‘that eccentric and vinegar old gentleman’.
Wilkes, meanwhile, continued to gain popular support, such that by the time he was released from prison in 1770 he was a celebrity. He was elected an alderman of London and embarked on the next phase of his career as a dignitary in the city of London, but he was unwilling to let the Middlesex affair die. Over the coming years he delighted in embarrassing the clerks by answering calls for MPs to attend the chamber and presenting himself before them as the Member for Middlesex. The general election of 1774 finally offered him a chance to recapture the seat and he was duly returned on an uncontested ticket with his old associate Serjeant Glynn. This time the authorities chose not to dispute it. Matters had moved on, and whereas in 1768 Wilkes had been an outlaw (and in 1769 still serving his sentence) by 1774 he was a free man and there was little appetite to challenge his election.
The Middlesex election of 1769 was in many ways exceptional, but it was still representative of a number of themes. First, that eighteenth-century electoral politics was often exceptionally lively and by no means all electorates were small and subservient. It points also to the power of the popular press. While focus may predominantly have been on Wilkes, Luttrell’s decision to take on the darling of the mob placed him in real danger and gained for him and his family lasting notoriety. Above all, the episode underscored Parliament’s power in asserting its right to decide on who might be elected. The people may have voted in droves for Wilkes but that made little impression on an institution determined to exclude him.
Letters from the Year 1774 to the year 1796 of John Wilkes… to which is prefixed a memoir of the life of Mr Wilkes (1804)
Sir Henry Cavendish’s Debates in the House of Commons, vol. I: 1768-1770 (1841)