Sir Francis Burdett and the Middlesex Elections of 1802-4

In the first decade of the 19th century, Radical politician Sir Francis Burdett played the leading role in a pair of hotly contested and violent parliamentary elections for the county of Middlesex. The events highlighted an ideological gulf – between an appallingly corrupt establishment and an increasingly educated but disenfranchised working class. The great journalist William Cobbett described the resulting riotous events as a battle ‘between the magistrates and the thieves’.

Radicals and Spies

During the early 1790s, in the wake of the French Revolution, radical societies sprang up across England. Their members agitated for universal suffrage and, in more extreme cases, a revolution of their own. In the London suburbs an increasingly paranoid government backed the astonishingly corrupt Middlesex magistrates to suppress these societies.

The London Corresponding Society (‘LCS’) was foremost among the radical groups. Established in 1792, the LCS attracted over 2,000 members in six months, fed by ideas propagated by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. When war broke out against France in 1793, the Home Office set up an extensive spy network, focussed on high risk areas such as London’s East End.

The Middlesex magistrates, chaired by William Mainwaring, a banker and Tory MP, recruited and controlled the spies. In doing so, Mainwaring encouraged the corrupt antics of his fellow justices including Joseph Merceron, the infamous ‘Boss of Bethnal Green’.

William Mainwaring MP

In 1794, as a result of information received from an East End spy, several prominent LCS radicals, including politician John Horne Tooke, were tried for treason. Weaknesses in the government’s case, however, led to their acquittal.

Over the next couple of years, trade disruption, a severe winter and successive poor harvests resulted in increasing food prices, heightening tensions and civil unrest. Eventually, sparks flew. In the autumn of 1795, a stone-throwing mob shattered King George III’s carriage windows as he travelled to open Parliament. In response, Prime Minister William Pitt launched his own ‘reign of terror’. He introduced laws forbidding public assembly or the publication of ‘seditious writings’. Pitt applied these ‘Gagging Acts’ with increasing severity, while the Home Office spies busied themselves in infiltrating the Radical societies.


In the spring of 1797, several dozen sailors and Radical activists were arrested after mutinies at the naval bases at Spithead and The Nore. Home Secretary the Duke of Portland ordered the men to be imprisoned. They were held without trial at London’s Coldbath Fields Prison, under the somewhat unwilling supervision of Mainwaring, Merceron and their cronies.

The magistrates ignored and even encouraged the abuse these prisoners suffered at the hands of the prison governor, Thomas Aris. But some well-connected prisoners, including the former army officer Colonel Edward Despard, complained to the radical MP Sir Francis Burdett.

Sir Francis Burdett

Burdett was a fifth generation baronet and scion of an ancient Midlands Tory political family. In his early 20s he had married into the spectacular wealth of the Coutts banking dynasty and become the willing protégé of John Horne Tooke.

He was also very close to the Irish revolutionary politician Arthur O’Connor,. This relationship almost resulted in Burdett’s arrest for treason, when O’Connor was caught conniving with the French earlier in 1798. But Burdett remained an MP, with a growing reputation for opposing injustice whenever he encountered it.

Sir Francis Burdett

When Burdett revealed the prisoners’ treatment in Parliament, it led to a national scandal that rocked the Pitt government and severely damaged the credibility of the Middlesex magistrates. The scandal peaked in 1800 when Burdett exposed the case of 13-year-old Mary Rich, a rape victim imprisoned for a month on bread and water pending her testimony at her rapist’s trial.

Sir Francis Burdett visits Coldbath Fields (‘Citizens Visiting the Bastille’ by James Gillray)

The English Bastille

Burdett’s accounts of his visits to the prison, which he repeatedly likened to the Paris Bastille, led an embattled and embarrassed Duke of Portland to ban him from all prisons in England. This led Burdett almost to the point of withdrawing from politics altogether. But in 1802 there came an opportunity for revenge.

When the exhausted Pitt stood down as Prime Minster in 1801, his successor Addington made a temporary peace with France and called a general election. Horne Tooke and his allies saw their chance and persuaded Burdett, backed by all his family wealth, to stand against William Mainwaring in the Middlesex constituency.

Parliamentary elections before the 19th century reform acts were very different to today’s. In each of the 40 county constituencies, two seats were allocated via a franchise typically based on a property qualification worth £2 per year. Seats were rarely contested but occasionally elections produced bitter battles that lasted for days.The large, shifting and radicalised Middlesex electorate had given rise to some of the fiercest contests. In 1768, the ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ election had lasted a week. Now, 34 years later in a battle that took twice as long to resolve, the cry was “Burdett and No Bastille”.

‘Burdett, and no Bastille’

The election was played out at hustings in Brentford. Burdett journeyed there daily from his home in Piccadilly, accompanied by a drunken crowd led by a band and a gang of butchers’ boys banging marrowbones and meat cleavers, the traditional instruments of street processions.

The second day of the election was July 14th, Bastille Day. Burdett made the most of it, his speeches accusing Mainwaring and his magistrate friends of cruelty, torture and murder. A pattern emerged as Burdett, trailing Mainwaring by several hundred votes but refusing to concede, was acclaimed by drunken crowds back to London who pelted Mainwaring’s coach with stones and dirt.

The contest continued like this for a fortnight until, on the penultimate day, a mysterious block of votes from the shareholders of a factory all went to Burdett – not a single one polled for Mainwaring. It was enough to win the seat for Burdett. He was carried back to London in a triumphal procession of 300 carriages waving his purple campaign colours. ,

A protracted dispute arose over the validity of the mysterious block vote that had swung the election.  In the summer of 1804, Parliament ruled Burdett’s election invalid and called a by-election.  Mainwaring was declared ineligible to stand as a result of his excessive ‘treating’ of electors. The Middlesex magistrates now persuaded Mainwaring’s son George to stand in his place against Burdett.

The 1804 election

The 1804 election was almost an exact re-run of the 1802 campaign. Each evening, Burdett reminded the cheering crowd of Mainwaring’s links to corruption and Coldbath Fields. In turn, Mainwaring was drowned out as he denounced Burdett’s friendship with the traitor Despard, executed for treason the previous year.

The race was neck and neck. At the close, three sets of poll books called the result differently. True to form, Burdett repeated his triumphal procession to London but two days later the sheriffs called the result for Mainwaring and it was Burdett’s turn to protest in vain.

Middlesex Election, 1804 by James Gillray


George Mainwaring and his father, together with Joseph Merceron and their corrupt associates, went on to dominate the local government of Middlesex for a further decade until their frauds caught up with them.

Sir Francis Burdett, still sponsored by Horne Tooke, turned his attention to the more radical seat of Westminster following the death of Charles James Fox in 1806, retaining it until after the Reform Act of 1832. By this time, however, his firebrand politics had matured into something more like the mild Toryism of his ancestors.

Julian Woodford’s biography of Joseph Merceron, The Boss of Bethnal Green, is available from Spitalfields Life Books, Amazon or other online booksellers.

An earlier version of this post was published in the London Historians members’ newsletter in December 2016.

The Prince Regent, the Gin Distiller and the Cesspit

Historians seeking insight into the characters of Georgian London could do worse than read Arthur Conan Doyle’s largely forgotten novel Rodney Stone, set during the Peace of Amiens in 1803. In the book, the young eponymous narrator is whisked around the metropolis by his uncle Sir Charles Tregellis, ‘King of the Bucks’ and very particular friend of the Prince of Wales, on his way encountering a host of real-life characters including Beau Brummell, Charles James Fox, Lord Nelson and the Prince himself.

The Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and George IV) in 1792

Much of the novel is taken up with the sport of prize-fighting, and in one memorable scene Rodney visits a low-life drinking den in St. Martin’s Lane where a bare-knuckle fight is to take place for the amusement of the Prince and his friends. Entering the bar, Rodney sees a group of pugilists seated round a table bearing a tray of small glasses and pewter mugs:

‘The boys were thirsty, sir, so I brought up some ale and some liptrap’, whispered the landlord.

Liptrap? Was this slang for some extraordinary concoction so strong that it froze the mouth of the imbiber? The derivation is more prosaic: Liptrap was a popular brand of London gin, produced at the great distillery of S D Liptrap & Son off the Whitechapel Road, just west of the London Hospital and on the site of today’s Whitechapel Sports Centre.

Site of S D Liptrap & Son (later Smiths) distillery, Whitechapel (1830)

It’s unclear whether Conan Doyle knew it, but had a real landlord served Liptrap’s gin to the Prince of Wales, it would have triggered a strong response. The Prince and the distiller had a history:

John Liptrap, the owner of the Whitechapel distillery, was born in 1766 and had inherited the business on his father’s death in 1789. A Middlesex magistrate, Liptrap was also a philanthropist and patron of the arts and sciences, a governor of the London Hospital and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also active in City of London politics, culminating in 1795 with his election at the age of just 29 as one of the City’s two Sheriffs.

It was during his year as Sheriff that Liptrap had an encounter with Prince George that would result in the word Liptrap forever leaving an unpleasant taste in the Prince’s mouth. In his capacity as Sheriff, the distiller invited the Prince to dine with him and various other worthies at his house in Whitechapel. During dinner the Prince, recently disentangled from his disastrous marriage to Princess Caroline, was captivated by the charms of Liptrap’s wife Elizabeth, a celebrated beauty. According to Robert Huish, the Prince’s early biographer, Mrs Liptrap was flattered:

…her eye beamed with desire and passion, and her LIP was not the first TRAP which, by its lovely pouting, had ensnared the affection of the enamoured Prince.

When the ladies left the table, the Prince – unable to resist temptation – excused himself and followed them. When his guest of honour failed to return, Liptrap became concerned and went to investigate. Huish continues:

There were several places in the house to which it was possible that the Prince had retired, but there was one, in particular, in which it was highly improbable that he be found, and that was the bed-chamber of his lady. It was, therefore, the last which the worthy Sheriff visited – but, had he visited it first, it would have saved him a great deal of trouble, and calmed at once his anxiety for the safety of his Royal guest.

Notwithstanding the interloper’s identity, Liptrap responded in the only way open to a gentleman of the time: he drew his sword and chased the Prince out of the house. The heir to the throne found himself pursued around Liptrap’s garden in pitch darkness, with no sign of an escape route. His only option was to vault the garden wall:

…and he now found the adage to be true, that a man should always look before he leaps. The Prince did not look; and therefore he leapt into as vile a compound of dirt and filth as ever received the body of a human being, much more that of a Prince.

The story concludes with the comment that from that day on, the Prince could never hear mention of the name Liptrap without exclaiming: Oh, but it has a rank, unearthly smell!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Liptrap’s career appears to have taken a turn for the worse after this encounter. In 1804 he got into financial difficulties and entered bankruptcy proceedings. In 1812, Liptrap set himself up in opposition to Joseph Merceron, the infamous ‘Boss of Bethnal Green’ and Godfather over much of London’s East End (of whom much more later*). This was a very unwise tactic, given that Merceron owned or controlled most of the local inns and was also the licensing magistrate, well known to withhold licences from publicans unless they sourced their ales and spirits from Merceron’s favoured suppliers. It seems that Merceron exercised his nefarious influence over Liptrap’s customers and suppliers with the result that by the end of 1812 the Liptrap distillery company had unpaid debts amounting to more than £100,000.

Early in 1813 the government instituted further bankruptcy proceedings. That July, Liptrap’s fine house and mahogany furniture were auctioned, together with his art collection, impressive library and the assets of his distillery (including 100 bags of juniper berries!), and he departed from the East End for good.

We hear no more of Liptrap until his death in Canterbury on May 17 1826 at the age of 60, his mind weakened by repeated attacks of paralysis . His obituary described him touchingly as ‘a gentleman who for literary acquirement, gentlemanly feeling and benevolence of heart, was second to none’. His name lives on only in Australia, in the form of Cape Liptrap, a beautiful coastal park 160km south of Melbourne, named after him by his friend and its discoverer, Lieutenant Grant, R.N.

Cape Liptrap, Victoria, Australia

And so, dear Readers, in memory of this fine London citizen please help resurrect a lovely and apposite name for a shot in the arm. The next time you are offered a drink, instead asking for a plain old G&T, please raise the cry:

Make mine a Liptrap!

* Further details of John Liptrap’s feud with Joseph Merceron are set out in my book The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London.


Further Reading

1. Arthur Conan Doyle, Rodney Stone (1896)

2. Robert Huish, Memoirs of George the Fourth (1830)