Knight or knave?
Dorothy Turcotte digs into the murky world of an 18th-century rotten borough MP called Sir Peter Mews
Published in November ’11
When Peter Mews agreed to buy the Manor of Christchurch for £22,000 in 1708, the deal was quickly finalised. The Manor of Christchurch had been given to Edward Hyde who had been created Earl of Clarendon and Viscount Cornbury by Charles II on his Restoration in 1660. Clarendon served as the monarch’s Secretary of State, and later Chancellor. Although he refused many of the land grants that Charles offered him, Clarendon did accept Christchurch. Clarendon’s son, Henry, inherited Christchurch, but was all too eager to get rid of this ‘annoying burden’. Henry reportedly sold Christchurch to pay the debts of his son, Edward, who was described as ‘a vicious fellow’.
Whilst this was a very expensive purchase for Peter Mews, it gave him, as Lord of the Manor, complete control over the politics of this large area. It was his responsibility to supervise the election of local officers – mayor, recorder, bailiffs, alderman and common councillors. In 1710, he became a Member of Parliament for Christchurch. The borough had two MPs, one chosen by the Lord of the Manor (Sir Peter Mews, who chose himself) and one chosen by the burgesses.
Two years after he acquired the Manor, Peter Mews was knighted for his service to Queen Anne. It is said that knighthood was his reward as a ‘worthy patriot’ for uncovering corruption and mismanagement in the previous government. This seems like a paradox, as a closer look at Sir Peter’s life does not necessarily reveal a man who would be outraged by corruption.
Immediately after their marriage in Westminster Abbey in 1719, Sir Peter and his new bride, Lady Lydia Mews, returned to Christchurch where elections were about to take place. The elections were Sir Peter’s responsibility, and he seemed determined to influence the outcome of the election in accordance with his preference for certain candidates.
On 8 September each year, it was customary for the mayor and resident burgesses to meet in the town hall to nominate three candidates for mayor for the following year. On 14 September, the candidates would then be presented to the public, which would choose one of them. The successful candidate would be sworn in at the Michaelmas Court Leet. One of the requirements of this occasion was that the out-going mayor must be present at the swearing in of the new mayor. In September of 1718, John Stevens was the successful candidate. He expected to be sworn in at the appropriate time. However, Sir Peter, as Lord of the Leet, and his steward, Charles Hackman, and several of the burgesses, refused to hold a Court Leet at Michaelmas. Therefore, there was no mayor.
In April of the following year, a person completely unknown in the Manor appeared and called a Court Leet. He swore in some officers of the court, but when John Stevens presented himself to be sworn in, the unknown person refused to acknowledge him. The Court Leet was broken up by the unknown man who thereafter disappeared and was not heard from again. Christchurch was still without a mayor.
At this point, John Stevens moved for a mandamus (court order) in the King’s Bench. For his part in the event, Sir Peter’s steward, Charles Hackman was taken into custody, fined and released. When questioned about his part in the affair, Hackman had little to say, except that he had been discharged by Sir Peter in October 1718, just after the legal Court Leet should have been held.
All of this, it seems, was at the instigation of Sir Peter who did not wish to see John Stevens as mayor, possibly due to a legal matter, which was dealt with at the Dolphin Inn at Christchurch in September 1716, where Sir Peter had brought suit against Robert Bascombe and other neighbours for cutting weeds in a small rivulet called Mead Mill Stream, which ran out of the River Avon. The complaint was that this diverted the water from the River Avon adversely affecting Sir Peter’s mills and damaged the salmon fishery. John Stevens was one of three men commissioned to judge the matter. It doesn’t seem to have gone in Sir Peter’s favour.
Stevens next sought a mandamus for a Court Leet to be held, but this wasn’t done until July 1719. During the summer, other attempts were made to swear in John Stevens, but in each instance he declined. There were more complications. The former mayor, the only person who could have legally observed the swearing in of John Stevens, was James Stevens who as the previous mayor was technically still in office. James Stevens inconveniently died in April 1719.
It was into this situation that Sir Peter and Lady Mews arrived just after their wedding. On 8 September, Sir Peter put forward Francis Gwynn as the chosen candidate. Although John Stevens protested strenuously, Gwynn was elected mayor, James Colgill as his deputy. By an amazing coincidence, John Stevens died on 28 September. Now there was no legal candidate for the office of mayor, and no legal mayor to swear one in. In the hope of restoring some structure to the local administration, two petitions were put forward. One was put forward by members of the Stevens family, along with Charles Hackman who seems to have changed sides, which asked for new Letters Patent so that there might be re-incorporation of the borough and a fresh start. The second petition, put forward by supporters of the unauthorized mayors, asked for a Royal Writ to give them power to carry out their supposed duties. The Privy Council, having heard all parties to both petitions, made their decision on 17 October, 1721. It was decided that a charter should be granted to Christchurch, and that provisions should be made so that similar inconveniences could not arise again in the future. The matter rested there, or at least it should have done.
Sir Peter and Messrs. Gwynn and Colgill carried on as if they were acting legally and went so far as to swear in five new burgesses. The people of Christchurch had by now been without a mayor since 1719 and were eager to see things put to rights. Another effort was made to choose a mayor legally. On the traditional date of 8 September, 1725, the legal resident burgesses of the borough – ten in number, plus the five that had been created illegally during the interim – met at the town hall to choose the mayoral candidates. Five of the legal burgesses chose their candidates – Ferdinando Young, Matthew Imber and Samuel Hookey. However, the other five legal burgesses along with the five created during the period of usurpation put forth a different list of candidates – Edward Bourne, William Forbes and James Bullock. Joshua Stevens, the last person present who could legally execute the office of mayor, believed that he should preside as the person empowered by the late Act of Parliament. He cast a ballot in favour of the Young/Imber/Hookey slate of officers. Then Richard Holoway, the senior burgess present, said that he had the right to preside, and cast his vote for the same candidates, thus rejecting the votes of the five illegal burgesses.
On the traditional election date of 14 September, the two lists of candidates were read to the electors of the town, and the votes were taken. It was said by his supporters that Mr. Hookey was elected ‘by a majority of good votes’ while the opposing group said that James Bullock had been elected. Both groups adjourned to the Town Hall where each party continued to declare its winner.
Two days later, Sir Peter announced that James Bullock was winner, and presented him as mayor for the coming year. Tradition required that a jury be sworn by the Steward of the Court Leet (in this case, James Willis). Such a jury had been appointed to represent Samuel Hookey, and at this point Joshua Stevens presented the jury and Mr. Hookey to be sworn in as well. Willis called the traditional ceremony ‘Nonsense & Scandalous’, and refused to swear either the jury or Mr. Hookey.
The whole situation was in a terrible mess. The one person who could have taken a stand to find a solution was the person who had manipulated affairs in the first place – Sir Peter Mews. But it was not to be until 1728, three years after Sir Peter’s death and nine years after the post became vacant, that a Mayor of Christchurch was finally elected.
This article is an edited extract from Dorothy Turcotte’s book: Strange Affairs at Christchurch: Sir Peter Mews – Knave Or Knight? ISBN 9781897887905 It is published at £7.95 by Natula Publications, Christchurch, Dorset BH23 1JD, 020 7193 7305 www.natula.co.uk