A revolting pocket borough: Morpeth in the late eighteenth century

In our latest Georgian Lords blog, in keeping with our general focus for the month on the county of Northumberland, Dr Charles Littleton considers the case of the pocket borough of Morpeth and its uneasy relations with the earls of Carlisle.

The Northumbrian borough of Morpeth had returned representatives to Parliament since 1553. From 1601 the Howards of Naworth were lords of the manor, and in 1661 Charles Howard was created earl of Carlisle. He and his descendants controlled Morpeth so thoroughly that in the mid-eighteenth century the selection of MPs was considered to be ‘totally in Lord Carlisle’. Morpeth would appear to be a textbook example of a ‘pocket borough’. However even this personal fiefdom needed careful management, and on occasion the townsmen could resist the earls’ domination.

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The franchise lay in those admitted to the freedom of the borough. This provided the earls with a means to control the size and composition of the electorate. In 1730 the 3rd earl of Carlisle (another Charles), extracted from the borough’s corporation a signed acknowledgement of his right to have the final determination on those townsmen nominated by the borough’s craft guilds as freemen. Traditionally the earls nominated one Member of Parliament, while the corporation chose the other. However at the 1747 election Henry, 4th earl of Carlisle, nominated both seats without the corporation’s concurrence. Later that year he also obtained a resolution from the corporation stating that the craft guilds needed the earl’s consent even to nominate any of their members for the freedom. The eighteenth century saw a steady decline in the number of freemen electors in the borough. In 1725 there were 130, about 100 in 1738, and by 1765 just forty-nine.

In 1754 the 4th earl was again able to name both Members, who were returned unopposed. One of them, Thomas Duncombe, was his own son-in-law. The other, Robert Ord, resigned his seat on taking office, and Carlisle donated the seat’s nomination to Thomas Pelham Holles, duke of Newcastle. Newcastle assured Sir Matthew Fetherstonaugh, bt., that he would be returned with no expense or need to visit the borough. Such neglect angered Morpeth’s inhabitants and they took advantage of the minority of Frederick, 5th earl of Carlisle, from September 1758 to May 1769, to rebel against the Howard interest. They were angered that Carlisle’s agents treated them ‘de haut en bas and in such manner as they judged tyrannical and an insult upon their liberties’ [Fewster, ‘Earls of Carlisle’, 250]. In 1761 the freemen elected a newcomer, who defeated the candidate put forward by the young earl’s guardians by one vote.

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By 1766 a Presbyterian minister, Robert Trotter, had founded the ‘the Friends of Liberty’ in Morpeth with the goal of helping them to ‘assert their rights like free born Englishmen’. Their campaign focused on the stranglehold the earls of Carlisle held on the creation of freemen. A London attorney, Francis Eyre, took on their test case demanding the recognition of 33 freemen who had been admitted without the earl’s consent. Eyre won the Morpeth freemen’s cause, and on the back of this success stood as their candidate in the 1768 election. His supporters rallied to the calls for ‘Down with slavery and oppression’ and ‘Eyre and Liberty’, much as the inhabitants of Middlesex were at the same time assembling under the banner of ‘Wilkes and Liberty’.

Although Eyre had won the right of the freemen in the courts, Carlisle’s steward in the town delayed their formal admittance in the borough’s records, and when they were sworn in, it was not done by the standard procedure. The terms of a 1763 statute, the ‘Durham Act’, could also be used against Morpeth’s new batch of freemen, as it prohibited the practice of creating a large number of freemen just before an election in order to influence the result. Initially Eyre looked set to emerge victorious, but the votes of only 12 of ‘his’ 33 freemen were counted, putting him at the bottom of the poll by just three votes. He petitioned, but the Commons were unsympathetic, persuaded that the admission of the freemen was both irregular and done too close to the election.

Passions were running high by the next election in 1774. At the poll a returning officer disregarded Eyre’s obvious majority and declared for Peter Delmé and William Byron (the heir of William, 5th Baron Byron), before a threatening crowd persuaded him to replace Byron’s name with Eyre’s on the return. Byron’s subsequent petition complaining of ‘the outrageous proceedings of an unruly populace’ was accepted by the Commons and he was awarded the seat. Within 18 months, though, he was dead. Eyre initially expressed hope of prevailing at the by-election, but his increasing financial difficulties prevented him from pursuing this further. The tide seemed to be turning for the ‘Friends of Liberty’ and Robert Trotter gave him little encouragement, admitting that ‘the battle is over’. However, the earl of Carlisle, having come of age in May 1769, could not feel triumphant either. Beset by financial troubles of his own, partly arising from his willingness to stand as guarantor for the loans of his friend Charles James Fox, his letters to his agents revealed he feared he was ‘losing’ the borough and the right to nominate both seats. The greatest threat to his interest ultimately did not come from the radical Friends of Liberty of the late 1760s, but from a more conventional source – rivals from his own class. The next contested election for the borough was in 1802 and pitched Carlisle’s candidate against another principal landowner of the area, William Ord of Whitfield Hall. In 1804 these two came to an agreement of ‘mutual forbearance’ to divide the representation between themselves, to counter any third party challenge from the borough’s freemen.

The borough was not a major target of the reformers in their attacks on rotten and pocket boroughs, although the 1832 reform act did make it a single-member seat. It continued to elect Howards, usually sons of the earls of Carlisle, until 1874. The constituency survived until it was abolished in 1983 and the town was incorporated into Wansbeck constituency.

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Further Reading

Joseph Fewster, ‘The Earls of Carlisle and Morpeth: A Turbulent Pocket Borough’, Northern History vol 51 (2014), 242-262

Joseph Fewster, ed., Morpeth Electoral Correspondence 1766-1776 (Surtees Society, 2017)

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