Chapter 2 - Background
Although this may seem a little strange, the most important factor governing the result of the 1768 election took place a little over 100 years earlier, in 1661. In that year there had been another disputed election and, as we will see, all disputed elections create great animosity and bad feeling between the various parties. In the 1661 election there were three aspirants for the two available seats; Dr Rigby, Dr Fife and Dr Rishton. Dr Rigby collected votes from all sections of the voters but Dr Fife, who was the nominee of the corporation, lost the election to Dr Rishton who was supported by the “freemen at large”. A more complete explanation of the different voter types will appear later but, for the moment, these individuals could be treated as freemen of the town but not permanent residents. As far as the corporation was concerned any expansion of the electorate would take control out of their hands. By restricting the voting electorate to the “in-burgesses” or “in-freemen” who were nominated by the Mayor and corporation, their nominee was more than likely to win. When the corporation lost this election the case was put to the parliamentary committee of privileges and elections. The question posed to them being
“whether the Mayor and twenty four burgesses had only voices, or the inhabitants at large.”
The committee responded with the ruling
“that all inhabitants had voices in the election”
meaning that all the freemen including all those at large should be allowed to vote and Dr Rishton should be the elected MP. By phrasing their conclusion in these words the committee had, probably unintentionally, sanctioned universal male suffrage. As far as Preston (and the rest of the Country) was concerned, for the next hundred years the outcome of this election and the decision of the parliamentary committee was largely ignored. It was rarely mentioned and, even when it was, it had no obvious effect on the subsequent elections. In fact, in the 1690 election, all parties agreed that the franchise be restricted to in-burgess inhabitants alone. Only when powerful opponents to the Corporation appeared would the situation change and these words to disrupt the status quo.
Preston wasn’t the only Borough in the Country where the Mayor and Corporation controlled the electorate in this way. Rotten Boroughs notwithstanding, it was, more often than not, the general situation around the country. By 1768, this issue of manipulating the electorate had come to a head in that a number of cases were presented to the King’s Bench citing the abuse power by local Corporations. Maidstone and Northampton particularly stand out and, in fact, Northampton also suffered similar rioting in 1768. These cases, as in Preston, had less to do with democracy and more to do with power.
It should be explained at this point that, in Preston for the 1768 election, the opposing parties were the Whigs and Tories - but this was only in name only and had nothing to do with our modern view of the Tory party being to the right of centre. In this election the Mayor and Corporation backed the Tory candidates whereas the Stanley and Hoghton families supported the Whigs. It seems that splitting the groups on party lines was largely less important than the personalities involved and the powerful factions in the background.
In the years just prior to the 1768 election, the MP (or MPs) for Preston tended to be a “shoe-in” nominee of the Corporation. The only people who would be allowed vote, in local and national elections, were the freemen or in-burgesses of the town. The Mayor and Corporation had, for some time, ignored many Whigs who, all things being equal, would have expected to have been nominated. By this underhand manner the Mayor and corporation reinforced the status quo. According to Abram (1)
More than one-third of the householding residents of Preston in 1768 were excluded from the Burgess Roll, and thereby were deprived alike of the Municipal and the Parliamentary franchise.
How he came about this figure is unknown and the position of Catholics is also unstated but we will come to this later.
A number of other categories of “potential” voters appear in the 1768 election; the military, Catholics and “foreigners”. Each of these groups had a presence in the town causing disputes as to the validity of their vote - without clear resolution. Prior to 1768 these groups were largely ignored although a limited number of Catholics appeared in the 1766 elections.
Another conflict rumbling in the background was that the relationship between the Corporation and the Stanley/Hoghton families and, in the years running up to the 1768, it had broken down. The Stanleys and Hoghtons could lay claim to being the most influential families in the area and they, or at least a nominee of theirs, had been adopted by the Corporation in most elections until 1741 – in fact Sir Edward Stanley had been the mayor in 1731. By 1768 the Corporation had declared independence from these families and the battleground was set.
1. W. A. Abram “Sketches in Local History” – printed as a series of articles in the Preston Guardian between 1878 and 1881. A more convenient way of examining these articles can be found as a “cuttings book” in the Harris Library with the reference P12 ABR.