Shaftesbury (UK Parliament constituency)

Former Borough constituency
for the House of Commons
Number of members Two until 1832; one 1832–1885

Shaftesbury (/ˈʃæftsbʌri/ SHAFTS-burr-ee) was a parliamentary constituency in Dorset. It returned two Members of Parliament to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1295 until 1832 and one member until the constituency was abolished in 1885.


Boundaries and franchise before 1832

Shaftesbury was one of the towns summoned to send representatives to the Model Parliament of 1295, and thereafter was continuously represented (except during the temporary upheavals of the Commonwealth) until the 19th century. The constituency was a parliamentary borough, which until 1832 consisted of parts of three parishes in the town of Shaftesbury, a market town in Dorset. In the 17th century the Mayor and Corporation attempted to restrict the right to vote to themselves, but after a decision in 1697 the vote was exercised by all inhabitant householders paying scot and lot. Shaftesbury being a prosperous town this included the vast majority of households, and in 1831 when the borough contained only 474 houses, 400 separate properties were rated for scot and lot and 359 people voted in that year's election. The franchise was therefore in practice, for the period, a very liberal one.

Political character in the 18th century

Like many boroughs, Shaftesbury generally recognised the local landowner as its "patron", with the right to nominate both its MPs, but also expected this influence to be cemented with generous bribery, making electoral control of the substantial electorate an expensive business. In the mid 18th century the joint patrons were Lord Ilchester and The Earl of Shaftesbury, who generally agreed to nominate one member each rather than bringing about a contested election which would allow the voters scope to demand bribes. Ilchester, who as Stephen Fox had sat as the borough's MP for a number of years before being raised to the peerage, described it as "troublesome, expensive and corrupt".

The patrons were free to recoup their expenditure by selling the seats to suitable candidates (at that period perfectly legal) rather than giving them to family or friends, but avoiding an expensive contest meant they could pocket the proceeds rather than seeing them (illegally) passing into the pockets of the voters. Namier quotes from the papers of Prime Minister Newcastle to show that Sir Thomas Clavering paid £2000 for his seat at Shaftesbury in 1754, and that in 1761 Newcastle quoted the same sum as the likely price of a seat for Sir Gilbert Heathcote, but added that no other pocket borough would be any cheaper.

However, the agreement between the patrons to split the seats amicably merely caused the townsmen to encourage independent candidates to stand so as to ensure a contest, and from 1761 onwards there was generally at least one candidate competing against those backed by the patrons. There also developed the practice of extending bribes in the form of "loans", which would not be called in provided the voter voted as instructed.

The corrupt election of 1774

Over the years a number of election results were overturned because of corrupt or illegal practices by the victors, but that of 1774 was particularly notorious. At that election one candidate, Hans Winthrop Mortimer, stood independently of the established interests in the town and, having been easily defeated, petitioned to have the result overturned and produced copious evidence of corruption. Thomas Rumbold and Francis Sykes were both shown to have bribed at a rate of 20 guineas (£21) a man, the total spent amounting to several thousand pounds; worse, the magistrates of the town were implicated in distributing this largesse. The contemporary historian of abuses in the rotten boroughs, Thomas Oldfield, gave this account of the "very singular and very absurd contrivances" unsuccessfully used in the hope of preventing proof of involvement:

A person concealed under a ludicrous and fantastical disguise, and called by the name of Punch, was placed in a small apartment, and through a hole in the door delivered to the voters parcels, containing twenty guineas each: upon which they were conducted to another apartment in the same house, where they found another person called Punch's secretary, who required them to sign notes for the value received: these notes were made payable to an imaginary character, to whom was given the name of Glenbucket. Two of the witnesses swore that they had seen Punch through the hole in the door, and that they knew him to be Mr. Matthews, an alderman of the town...

The Commons Committee accepted the evidence before them, and not only declared Sykes and Rumbold not duly elected and Mortimer duly elected to one of the seats in their place, but ordered that Sykes, Rumbold, and a long list of other inhabitants of the town should be prosecuted by the Attorney General for bribery and perjury. A bill was also brought in to permanently deprive the guilty parties of their votes; however this was never passed, the prosecution never took place, and the Commons was eventually persuaded to reverse its condemnations of Sykes and Rumbold so that both were able to stand for the borough at the next general election. They did not escape penalty entirely, however, as Mortimer brought a civil suit for bribery against Sykes at Dorchester Assizes, and was awarded £11,000 in damages – which he used to buy houses in the town, increasing his own influence at future elections.

Bankruptcy and evictions

The combination of corruption at the election itself and the need to fight petitions against the result afterwards made Shaftesbury too expensive to be useful to Ilchester, and he sold most of his property in the town to Sykes, while the Earl of Shaftesbury, having failed to get his candidate elected in 1776, seems to have withdrawn from any active involvement. Meanwhile, Mortimer continued his acquisition of property in the town until he owned the majority of houses in the borough, but spent so much on this and on fighting elections that he ran through his substantial fortune and ended in a debtors' prison.

The majority interest in the borough then passed to the nabob Paul Benfield, who bought up Mortimer's properties cheaply when they were auctioned off to benefit his creditors. However, after twice being elected in expensive contests, Benfield too was bankrupted. Shaftesbury then passed through a number of hands until, on the eve of the Reform Act, the principal interest was that of Earl Grosvenor. His accession seems to have eliminated Shaftesbury's endemic bribery and converted it to a more secure pocket borough: when Edward Harbord was offered the seat in 1820 in token of Grosvenor's admiration for his stand over Peterloo, he described it as "a place where no questions are asked as to political principles, and no money required". However, Grosvenor opted for coercion rather than persuasion to enforce his will, and at the tumultuous election of 1830 threatened to evict any of his tenants who did not back his candidates. This won the day, although the anti-Grosvenor candidate promised to compensate any of his supporters who might be evicted, and the election ended in a riot. Grosvenor's agents then proceeded to issue notice to quit to the recalcitrant tenants, fuelling an even-more-vigorous (but still unsuccessful) opposition to his candidates at the 1831 election, even though both of his nominees were pro-Reform.

Effects of the Reform Act

In 1831, the population of the borough was 2,742, but the Reform Act of the following year extended the boundaries to include the whole of three town parishes and ten other adjoining parishes, covering an area several miles across and bringing the population up to 8,518. This was a bigger population than the revised borough of Poole, across the county, which kept both its MPs. Nevertheless, the Act provided that Shaftesbury lost one of its two MPs. The electorate of the new constituency was 634, and the reformed franchise being more restrictive than that which had previously operated, it was only the provision that preserved the rights of existing voters for life that prevented the new electorate from being as small as the old one. Indeed, as these voters died off or moved away the electorate fell still further, and only 461 men were registered to vote by 1865.

The constituency was unaltered in the boundary changes of 1868, but was too small to survive the next reform, and was abolished with effect from the 1885 general election. Shaftesbury itself and most of the borough were placed in the new Dorset North county constituency, though the parish of Donhead St Mary was in Wiltshire and was therefore incorporated into the Wilton constituency.

Members of Parliament


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ParliamentFirst memberSecond member
1386 Edward Leante Richard Payn[1]
1388 (Feb)Thomas Cammell Thomas Seward[1]
1388 (Sep)Hugh CroxhaleRoger Pyjon[1]
1390 (Jan) Thomas Cammell Robert Fovent[1]
1390 (Nov)
1391 Thomas CammellJohn Whiting[1]
1393 Thomas CammellWalter Biere[1]
1394 Thomas CammellRobert Biere[1]
1395 John WhitingWalter Biere[1]
1397 (Jan) John Hordere Walter Biere[1]
1397 (Sep) Hugh CroxhaleWalter Biere[1]
1399 Thomas CammellWalter Biere[1]
1402 Thomas Cammell Walter Biere[1]
1404 (Jan)
1404 (Oct)
1406 Robert Frye IIJohn Scarburgh[1]
1407 John BoleJohn Bremle[1]
1410 John BoleWalter Biere[1]
1413 (Feb)
1413 (May)John BoleWalter Biere[1]
1414 (Apr) Thomas Haselmere John Pyjon[1]
1414 (Nov) Thomas Hat Walter Biere[1]
1416 (Mar)
1416 (Oct)
1417 Robert FryeWalter Biere[1]
1419 Robert SquibbeJohn Clerk[1]
1420 Robert SquibbeJohn Bole[1]
1421 (May) Robert SquibbeJohn Clerk[1]
1421 (Dec) Robert SquibbeJohn Hody[1]
1510–1523No names known[2]
1529 William MoreJohn Mathew[2]
1536 ?
1539 ?
1542 ?
1545 William More Robert Grove[2]
1547 John ArundellHenry Ashley[2]
1553 (Mar) ?
1553 (Nov) John Gapputh John Fuell[2]
1554 (Apr) John Denham[2]
Parliament of 1554 (Nov) John Plympton[2]
Parliament of 1555 Matthew Arundell John Foster[2]
Parliament of 1558 William Grove Hugh Hawker[2]
Parliament of 1559 Sir John Zouche Henry Coker[3]
Parliament of 1563–1567 Henry Iden William Jordyn[3]
Parliament of 1571 John Long Thomas Morgan[3]
Parliament of 1572–1581 Robert Grove Charles Vaughan[3]
Parliament of 1584–1585 Thomas Cavendish Bartholomew Kempe[3]
Parliament of 1586–1587 Francis Zouche Gregory Sprint[3]
Parliament of 1588–1589 Thomas Crompton Michael Hicks[3]
Parliament of 1593 Arthur Atye[3]
Parliament of 1597–1598 John Budden John Davies[3]
Parliament of 1601 Arthur Messenger John Budden
Parliament of 1604–1611 Robert Hopton
Addled Parliament (1614) Henry Croke Sir Miles Sandys sat for Cambridge University
In his place Sir Simeon Steward
Parliament of 1621–1622 William Beecher Expelled from the House
In his place Percy Herbert
Thomas Sheppard Expelled from the House
In his place Ralph Hopton
Happy Parliament (1624–1625) William Whitaker John Thoroughgood
Useless Parliament (1625)
Parliament of 1625–1626 William Whitaker Samuel Turner
Parliament of 1628–1629 John Thoroughgood Sir John Croke
No Parliament summoned 1629–1640


YearFirst memberFirst partySecond memberSecond party
April 1640 William WhitakerParliamentarian Edward Hyde[4] Royalist
1640 Samuel TurnerRoyalist
November 1640
January 1644 Turner disabled from sitting – seat vacant
1645 John Bingham
1646 George Starre
1647 John Fry
February 1651 Fry expelled – seat vacant
1653 Shaftesbury was unrepresented in the Barebones Parliament and the First and Second Parliaments of the Protectorate
January 1659 Henry Whitaker James Baker
May 1659 John Bingham One seat vacant
April 1660 Thomas Grove James Baker
1661 Henry Whitaker John Lowe
1667 John Bennett
1677 Thomas Bennett
1679 Sir Matthew Andrews
1685 Sir Henry Butler John Bowles
1689 Sir Matthew Andrews Edward Nicholas
1698 Henry Cornish
1699 Thomas Chafin
1701 Sir John Cropley
1710 Edward Seymour
1711 Henry Whitaker
January 1715 Samuel Rush[5]
May 1715 William Benson[6] Whig
1719 Sir Edward des Bouverie
1726 Stephen Fox
1734 Jacob Banks Philip Bennet[7]
1735 Stephen Fox
1738 Philip Bennet
1741 Peter Walter Charles Ewer
1742 George Pitt[8] Tory
June 1747 Cuthbert Ellison
December 1747 William Beckford
1754 Hon. James Brudenell Sir Thomas Clavering Whig
1761 Sir Gilbert Heathcote Whig Samuel Touchet Whig
1768 William Chaffin Grove (Sir) Ralph Payne
1771 Francis Sykes
1774 Thomas Rumbold
1775 Seat declared vacant pending by-election Hans Winthrop Mortimer[9] Independent
1776 George Rous
1780 Sir Thomas Rumbold[10] (Sir) Francis Sykes[11]
1781 Hans Winthrop Mortimer Independent
1784 Adam Drummond
1786 John Drummond
1790 Charles Duncombe Tory William Grant Tory
1793 Paul Benfield
1796 Walter Boyd
1802 Edward Loveden Loveden Whig Robert Hurst
1806 Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham
1807 Thomas Wallace Whig
1812 Richard Bateman-Robson Whig Hudson Gurney Whig
1813[12] Charles Wetherell Tory Edward Kerrison Tory
1818 John Bacon Sawrey Morritt Henry John Shepherd
1820 Edward Harbord Abraham Moore
1821 Ralph Leycester
1822 Lord Robert Grosvenor Whig
1826 Edward Davies Davenport
1830 Edward Penrhyn Whig William Stratford Dugdale Tory
1831 William Leader Maberly Whig
1832 Representation reduced to one member


1832 John Sayer Poulter Whig
1838[13] George Benvenuto Mathew Conservative
1841 Lord Howard of Effingham Whig
1845 Richard Brinsley Sheridan Whig
1852 Hon. Henry Berkeley Portman Whig
1857 George Grenfell Glyn Whig
1859 Liberal
1873 Vere Fane Benett-Stanford Conservative
1880 Hon. Sidney Carr Glyn Liberal
1885 Constituency abolished


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 "History of Parliament". History of Parliament Trust. Retrieved 26 November 2011.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "History of Parliament". History of Parliament Trust. Retrieved 26 November 2011.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "History of Parliament". History of Parliament Trust. Retrieved 26 November 2011.
  4. Hyde was also elected for Wootton Bassett, which he chose to represent, and never sat for Shafesbury
  5. On petition, the election of 1715, at which Rush and Nicholas had been elected, was declared void. One of their opponent's, Benson, was declared duly elected in their place but the other, Henry Andrews, was found not to be eligible. A by-election was therefore held for the second seat, at which Nicholas was once more elected.
  6. In 1718, Benson was appointed Surveyor-General of His Majesty's Works, an office that required him to vacate his seat and stand for re-election. He won the by-election but, on petition, the result was overturned and des Bouverie declared elected instead.
  7. On petition, Bennet was declared not to have been duly elected, and his opponent Fox was seated in his place
  8. Pitt was re-elected in 1747, but had also been elected for Dorset, which he chose to represent, and did not sit again for Shaftesbury
  9. At the election of 1774, Sykes and Rumbold were initially declared elected, but on petition the result was overturned and their only opponent, Mortimer, was declared elected; the Commons also ordered the prosecution of Sykes and Rumbold for bribery. The second seat was declared vacant and a by-election held.
  10. Rumbold was initially declared elected, but on petition the result was overturned and his opponent, Mortimer, was seated in his place.
  11. Created a baronet, June 1781
  12. Bateman-Robson and Gurney were initially returned as elected in the election of 1812, but on petition (Journals of the House of Commons, Volume 68 p 12 1812–1813) their opponents, Wetherell and Kerrison, were declared elected
  13. At the election of 1837, Poulter was initially declared re-elected, but on petition his election was declared void and after scrutiny of the votes his opponent, Mathew, was declared duly elected


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