Written by Dr Jack Binns
In 1597 a new outsider first appeared on Scarborough’s parliamentary scene. Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby, an impoverished Southern carpetbagger, had married the rich, twice-widowed Lady Margaret of Hackness. As the godson of Queen Elizabeth and a relative and nominee of the powerful Cecil family, Hoby expected to win one of the two Yorkshire seats. But he was mistaken and rejected: the native Yorkshire freeholders disliked and distrusted him as a foreign interloper. So Sir Thomas had to settle for one of Scarborough’s places. Later he was re-elected for the borough to sit in the new parliament of James I and served a year as the town’s senior bailiff. But the burgesses, like the county gentry, never accepted him as one of theirs. From 1614, for the next 20 years, Hoby found Ripon more congenial since its seats were safely in the pocket of the archbishop of York. He was never one to tolerate criticism, especially from social inferiors.
Hoby’s vacated seat at Scarborough fell to his deadly enemies, the Cholmleys of Whitby, first Sir Richard and then his son, Sir Hugh, who sat in the last parliament of James I and subsequently all but one of Charles I. Given the traditional rivalry between Whitby and Scarborough, the Cholmleys were not entirely welcome in the latter. And after Sir Richard had failed in the Commons to win a grant for the pier at Scarborough and Sir Hugh secured one for Whitby’s, his relation with the Common Hall’s 44 became frigid. However, it was Sir Hugh’s conduct during the Civil War that finally severed the connection. As governor of Scarborough castle for Parliament his protection was welcomed in the town, but after he changed sides his refusal to surrender subjected the people to a prolonged, devastating and unnecessary siege. He was never forgiven. One newspaper of the time alleged that the womenfolk pelted him with stones when he came out of the castle. Never again did the Cholmleys dare set foot in Scarborough. As Sir Hugh’s son complained, “during the late troubles I have never been thought worthy to serve them in Parliament, which for many years they had allowed to some of my family”. Henceforth a succession of Cholmleys had to find their Commons seats in other Yorkshire boroughs or even beyond the county.
Without doubt the most continuously successful family in Scarborough’s parliamentary history were the Thompsons. Originally from Humbleton in the East Riding, from William in 1625 to William, the fourth of that name, in 1744, through six generations, there was hardly a session at Westminster without at least one Thompson from Scarborough. Several times they occupied both seats. Only between 1685 and 1688, when the Thompson Whigs were ousted by the “papist” mayor and Tory squires, did the family fail to win a place.
During the 1690s, when candidates found insufficient backing from the 44 electors, they tried to widen the franchise to freemen and bribe as many of them as they could afford. In one notorious by-election in 1693, Viscount Irwin spent the colossal sum of £679 12s 9d to gain the vote. Afterwards, he was “chaired into the sea so that he rid admiral” before they all resorted to Sandside’s alehouses. It seems that this was a customary celebration of an electoral victory at Scarborough which ought to be revived.
Attempts made in the 1690s both to widen the franchises in rotten boroughs such as Scarborough’s and end traditional bribery of voters all failed. Though Yorkshire’s 8,000 freeholders were all entitled to choose two “knights of the shire”, apart from York and Hull, the county’s boroughs were “rotten” or “pocket”. Of the county’s 13 borough constituencies Scarborough’s electorate of 44 was greater than only Richmond’s 38, Beverley’s 26 and Aldborough’s nine!
When it came to treating, the Thompsons were just as corrupt as their Tory opponents. In 1689, for instance, one Thompson was said to have given two guineas (£2 10p) to a Scarborough innkeeper and told “to make the freemen merry”. There was no length they would not go to increase their wealth. Francis Thompson, who was elected five times, had a comfortable income after his father had kidnapped an orphan heiress worth at least £1,200 a year for him while he was still at grammar school.
The Tories were no better. John Hungerford, who was MP for the borough 1692-5, 1702-5 and 1707-29, survived expulsion from the Commons for taking a bribe from the East India Company. Famous for his long speeches and loud voice, he was said never to have “spared his lungs”. Daniel Defoe made him the target of one of his satirical verses.
Between 1715 and 1831 there were 36 elections and by-elections in the borough, but only seven of them were actually contested. Government influence exercised through the Treasury, Customs and Excise and the governorship of the royal castle often determined the outcome without the need for competition between candidates. Party allegiances were less influential than personal and family vendettas. The genuinely independent, active Member was exceptional.
Not untypical were the Osbaldestons, Whig country gentlemen from Hunmanby. Three of them from 1734 until 1790, without hardly a break, occupied a seat in the Commons on behalf of Scarborough and never said a word there! All were government automatons.
Towards the end of the century, the greatest landowners in the area vied with each other to capture borough seats. In Scarborough’s case, these were Lord Fitzwilliam of Malton, Lord Carlisle of Castle Howard, the dukes of Rutland and the lords of Mulgrave. From 1768 and for the next 60 years at least one of Scarborough’s two places was invariably held by a member of the Granby clan, Manners by family name and the dukes of Rutland by senior title. The last of them was Charles Manners Sutton, eldest son of the archbishop of Canterbury and Speaker of the Commons from 1817 until 1834.
Scarborough’s other seat in the House was in the permanent possession of the Phipps of Mulgrave castle. In the greatest contrast to the Osbaldestons, a series of gifted men, Charles, Henry, Constantine and Edmund, combined political with military and naval careers. Charles was a captain in the Royal Navy; Henry, the first earl of Mulgrave, was a major general; and Edmund was also an army general and a close friend of William Pitt. Constantine was thought too clever for the army and had a distinguished record as secretaries of state and ambassador to France. He was the first marquess of Normanby, the title still held by Phipps descendants.
But in 1832, after nearly five and a half centuries, Scarborough’s self-chosen 44 electors were finally ejected.
Continues next week.