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.

Gobbets of the Week #32

It is now a month since The Boss of Bethnal Green was published, and for the first time there seems some space to reflect. The weeks have flown by. The book seems to be selling – there have been exciting sightings in far-flung bookshops and some lovely emails from people who have read it.


There have been two hugely enjoyable launch parties, I’ve made a small publicity video, been interviewed on the radio by Robert Elms (link here, from 38.00) and given talks to diverse audiences at Waterstones Piccadilly, the East End History Society and the Society Club. On top of that I have written pieces for Spitalfields Life and London Historians. And importantly, I found time to dust off the blog and make it shipshape for all the activity I’m intending to deliver over the coming months.

So it’s been a very busy year. I’m now going to unwind a bit and let it all sink in. I have one more big event to do – the lunchtime lecture at the National Portrait Gallery on 15th December (do please sign up!) and then I’m going to drop down a few gears until the New Year.

With that, here are my favourite 10 gobbets of London history this week:

  1. The big news in the last couple of days has been the shock announcement of the closure of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. See link to the Guardian. It has brought forth the republication of some eulogistic pieces:
  2. …from Spitalfields Life…
  3. …from Peter Watts, on The Great Wen…
  4. …and from the Foundry’s own website, an account of its history.


    Image courtesy Spitalfields Life

  5. Another nice pair of gobbets: from the London Historians blog, a post on specialist London book dealer Hawk Norton
  6. …and a marvellous piece by Hawk himself on Victorian Childrens’ Books.
  7. With the definite arrival of winter weather, The Gentle Author was as usual spot on with his George Cruikshank’s London in Winter.
  8. From ‘Exploring London’: Where’s London’s oldest…public clock (with a minute hand)? I particularly liked this, because my photo of said clock (see below) was used in Dominic Reid’s lovely book on the Lord Mayor’s Show last year).giants-at-st-dunstan-in-the-west
  9. Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps are now online in a new interactive version. See also this explanatory article from Londonist.
  10. How did Finchley’s Tally Ho Corner get its name?

The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London is published by Spitalfields Books and available to buy here.


Gobbets of the week #31

It’s been a year since I did a ‘gobbets of the week’ post. I’ve been busy working on my book The Boss of Bethnal Green, which was published on 3 November by Spitalfields Life Books. Now that’s done, I’ll be posting more regularly here on a range of topics and definitely including some ‘gobbets’ posts.

So, here are links to the top 10 gobbets of London history I liked this week:

1. At Syd’s Coffee Stall. The Gentle Author visits an East End institution: “Ev’rybody knows Syd’s. Git a bus dahn Shoreditch Church and you can’t miss it. Sticks aht like a sixpence in a sweep’s ear,”

2. The Prospect of Whitby and Shadwell Basin. Another great post by A London Inheritance.

3. Remembering the Spa Fields Riots, from London Historians.

4. Leaving Victorian London, by Peter Watts.

5. Donald Trump: the View from London’s Streets. By Londonist.

6. 13 Secrets of Waterloo Bridge

7. London Tube Map Quiz, from Diamond Geezer.

8. 12 Maps of Alternative Londons

9. The best places to drink tea in London.

10. And finally: a plug for The Boss. The story of James Hadfield’s Pistol: a gun that almost killed a King, and started an English Revolution.