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date: 03 December 2022

Association movementfree

(act. 1780–1785)

Association movementfree

(act. 1780–1785)
  • Matthew Kilburn

Association movement (act. 1780–1785), describes the network of committees and meetings in counties and boroughs that advocated fiscal (or ‘economical’) and political reform in Britain in the closing years and immediate aftermath of the American War of Independence. Initiative in the movement largely came from the Yorkshire Association, led by Christopher Wyvill, but Yorkshire could not determine the character of the wider movement as to its relationship with the Rockingham whig party or the radicalism of its urban wings, particularly in London and Middlesex.

Becoming a nationwide movement

The publication of the Yorkshire petition on 30 December 1779 was a signal to opponents of Lord North's ministry elsewhere in England to organize committees to draft similar documents. Its call for the abolition of unnecessary pensions and places, and for measures to ensure the 'Freedom of Parliament', was recognized as the seed of 'a challenge to government by cousinhood and connection, by influence and patronage' (Black, 49), Yorkshire having connected economical reform to 'shortening the duration of Parliaments, and for obtaining a more equal representation of the people'. In practice most counties followed closely the advice of leading Rockinghamite magnates: Sir James Lowther, who had attended the Yorkshire meeting, in Cumberland; Lord Edward Bentinck (1744–1819), brother of the duke of Portland, in Nottinghamshire; and the dukes of Rutland and Manchester in Cambridgeshire. Radicals had to rely on borough committees, as did John Cartwright in Nottingham, or on tactical support from the Rockinghamites in areas where the government was strong, such as Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Sussex, or Dorset. The largest exception was Middlesex, where the meeting of freeholders on 20 December 1779 had postponed action until it knew what Yorkshire's lead would be. This reflected memories of the petitioning movement of 1769 (whose focus, John Wilkes, was in 1780 a presence among the reform campaign in Cambridgeshire), when disinterest from Yorkshire was thought to have proved crucial in deterring the counties from enthusiastic participation. Middlesex also heard a scheme for association from John Jebb which proposed that delegates from county committees—selected in proportion to the populations of the counties, and with attention to the sizes of the major manufacturing towns—meet to compose a remonstrance. Jebb argued that these delegates could dictate to parliament and, if ignored, could declare it dissolved and arrange for the election of a new, reformed parliament, presuming the assent of the Lords and the king. Jebb's proposal was enthusiastically taken up by the Middlesex meeting on 7 January 1780 and was even supported by Rockingham's representative George Byng (1735?–1789).

In an attempt to maintain Yorkshire's moderate leadership of the movement, Wyvill invited delegates from county and borough committees to form a central committee in London, which met at St Alban's tavern between 24 February and 20 March. The meeting could not agree a combined manifesto beyond that the association would require signatories to vote only for parliamentary candidates who supported it, and that some measure of electoral law reform was necessary. Wyvill and Robert Bromley of Middlesex published a Memorial and Report which also enshrined Wyvill's goal of an additional 100 county members to the Commons and asserted that annual parliaments were desirable.

The text of the association as agreed by the St Alban's tavern meeting endorsed triennial parliaments rather than annual ones, thereby restoring the situation before the Septennial Act of 1719. This and a resolution to end the American War of Independence were both concessions to Rockinghamite opinion. Most committees were chaired by Rockinghamite MPs and dominated by Rockinghamite magnates who subordinated the association to party interest. Prominent exceptions were Hertfordshire (where George Byng and Sir Philip Jennings-Clerke were leading figures), which pledged itself to parliamentary reform, the end of the American war, and triennial parliaments; Essex, which accepted Yorkshire's proposals but only until a meeting of delegates from all associated counties could decide on a joint resolution; and Westminster. In Essex Thomas Day obliquely denounced the Rockinghams, having 'never yet heard of an aristocracy, from ancient Rome to modern Venice, that was not the universal tyrant and inquisitor of the species' (Butterfield, 295).

Westminster formed its own subcommittee to report on parliamentary reform, consisting of Thomas Brand Hollis, John Jebb, and John Cartwright, who founded the Society for Constitutional Information in April 1780. Their 'Plan for Taking the Suffrages of the People at the Election of Representatives to Serve in Parliament', advocating universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments, anticipated the demands of radicals of the 1790s and afterwards. Indeed, Granville Sharp could plausibly argue that a call for annual parliaments honoured 'the ancient constitution', damaged by 'unjust usurpations … corruptions, and other such abuses' (Butterfield, 296). The report was taken up enthusiastically by Charles James Fox, anxious to secure the radical vote in anticipation of the general election contest in Westminster, even if he disagreed with the detail in private. The principle of constitutional reform was accepted even by the Sussex committee where an opposition magnate, Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond, was the greatest individual force. The radicals were able to take advantage of their existing correspondence networks so that moderate elements were to some extent dependent upon them for the spread of the association's ideas. News of different committees' resolutions was circulated around the country through provincial newspapers, and prominent reformers were invited to take up places on committees distant from their own localities, such as Hollis in Dorset, and even Fox in Wiltshire. In Kent, led by Lord Mahon [see Stanhope, Charles third Earl Stanhope], the associators established themselves as guardians of county security, resolving to form a militia to preserve property and good order.

The general election of 1780 and its aftermath

The influence of the movement's programme on parliamentary business in 1780 was limited to the essentially propagandist: the passing of John Dunning's motion that the influence of the crown 'has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished' (quoted in Black, 57), and Edmund Burke's bill for economical reform, which passed in a heavily modified form. The rise of the Protestant Association and the subsequent Gordon riots in June 1780 discredited both the idea of political association and the presumption that the people could be trusted with government.

Associators were elected to parliament in several counties and boroughs, including Kent, Middlesex, and Gloucester. However, their advance was not uniform, and in some constituencies favoured associators and sympathizers lost—among them John Culme who failed to benefit from freeholder discontent at government domination of the borough at Plymouth, or Alderman John Sawbridge in London. In other seats the cause of reform was co-opted in magnate struggles, such as in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, where the end result was to entrench established landed interests.

In the aftermath of the election of 1780 divisions opened between Yorkshire and Westminster. Jebb wrote that Wyvill's emphasis on Burke's bill for economical reform was 'tempesting the ocean to drown a fly' (Black, 74). With the urgency of the general election having passed, the parliamentary opposition no longer needed to encourage unity among their supporters and potential sympathizers. A second convention was called for early 1781, meeting in the Guildhall in London, but only Yorkshire, Devon, Essex, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Kent, Middlesex, and Surrey were represented, and the City of London dissolved its petitioning committee while the convention was in session. A committee succeeded in drafting a petition but its text represented the divisions in the movement; it was rejected in the Commons in April, as was a motion for shorter parliaments by Sawbridge in May. Wyvill returned to the cultivation of sympathetic parliamentarians. Jebb wanted to overturn the county influence of the landed gentry and to grant all individuals equal weight. However, in correspondence he expressed his intention to work for what reform could be achieved alongside the interests of those who believed the constitution had been corrupted but were opposed to parliamentary reform.

The second Rockingham and Shelburne administrations

Wyvill hoped that the second Rockingham ministry would see the wisdom of a wide-ranging programme of reform. He duly sought to rebuild the county movement to show that moderate opinion was behind it, the boroughs being largely written off to radicalism. The radicals were co-ordinated by the Quintuple Alliance of radical reformers from London, Westminster, Southwark, Middlesex, and Surrey, with the intention of winning every parliamentary seat in those boroughs and counties and forcing Wyvill and the moderate associators into a secondary role. Wyvill concentrated on persuading his cabinet allies Shelburne and the third duke of Richmond to win Rockingham over to parliamentary reform. Rockingham would only agree 'If we could amongst us settle some Plan that should unite the opinions of the public' (O'Gorman, 460). When William Pitt introduced a motion for an inquiry into the state of parliamentary representation, Rockingham's indifference contributed to its defeat, to the anger of Richmond, who had been the intermediary between the government and Wyvill. A measure of economical reform was passed, and though it abolished fewer places than Burke had sought in 1780, it was regarded as a substantive achievement by contemporaries.

The death of Rockingham in July 1782 led to the formation of the Shelburne ministry, with a smaller base. Shelburne's reliance on former supporters of North for votes in the Commons led him to be lukewarm towards reform measures. The Yorkshire committee meeting of 31 October 1782 prepared a circular letter to be sent to selected friends of parliamentary reform and the chairmen of the remaining committees. This proposed the abolition of at least fifty rotten boroughs, and the distribution of seats among the counties and London; repeal of the Septennial Act; extension of the county franchise to 40s. copyholders; and support for the abolition of nominal and fictitious votes in Scotland. There was growing agitation for reform in Scotland where the Edinburgh committee, chaired by Sir James Grant of Grant, eighth baronet, co-ordinated associations there. The letter gained the support of Southwark, despite its role in the Quintuple Alliance, and expressed its support for triennial rather than annual parliaments. Caernarvonshire, whose reformers were led by John Parry, also planned a petition modelled on Yorkshire's. Additional endorsements came from Flintshire—where William Davies Shipley, dean of St Asaph, was the leading advocate of reform—and Gloucester, as well as from smaller boroughs such as Tenby, Tiverton, Hereford, Leicester, and Bedford; but Devon, Norfolk, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire (despite the presence in the latter of the reformer Sir George Onesiphorus Paul) were among the indifferent or hostile. Even Manchester, whose growing population and lack of representation might have inspired enthusiasm, was hostile to a reform movement at a time of national crisis. Truro, a rotten borough where the corporation sold the representation, argued that it was 'unreasonable to expect more virtue in the lower orders of mankind than amongst men of education and fortune' (Black, 93) and thus unsettling to the status quo.

Wyvill's moderation, his patience with Shelburne, and the controversy the circular letter caused some—including Brass Crosby, chairman of the London committee—to accuse Wyvill of acting in bad faith by trying to dictate proposals. Wyvill's approach also opened an opportunity for the Quintuple Alliance to gain control of the associations. In Kent the county meeting of 8 June 1782 declared for radical parliamentary reform, despite the influence of Lord Mahon, who was aligned with Shelburne. In Westminster on 17 July, Fox, Sawbridge, Cartwright, and Jebb presided over a meeting that resolved for radical reform of representation and the duration of parliaments. The Nottinghamshire meeting of 28 October was intended to show that moderate country gentlemen were in agreement with the radical position: Lord George Manners-Sutton (1723–1783), uncle of the duke of Rutland, chaired the meeting, and the respected associators Sir George Savile and the earl of Surrey [see Howard, Charles eleventh duke of Norfolk], were present alongside the radical spokesmen William Dickinson Rastall [see Dickinson, William] and George Walker. Co-operation between moderates and radicals for control of the committees was more likely at this point than open disputes: in December 1782 Westminster, London, Middlesex, Surrey, Southwark, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Norfolk, Sussex, Huntingdonshire, Somerset, Cornwall, Flintshire, Caernarvonshire, Argyll, Moray, Stirlingshire, Haddingtonshire, Lanarkshire, and Fife were all actively involved in preparing petitions. In Yorkshire, Wyvill again demonstrated that the building of alliances between local, business, and religious interests could marshal signatures on petitions and demonstrate the effectiveness of the Yorkshire Association within and outside the county.

During the remainder of Shelburne's ministry the associated counties, now once more including radical opinion, arranged individual petitions by inhabitants of boroughs calling for reform in their representation. Initiated in Bury St Edmunds by Capel Lofft, of the Society for Constitutional Information, this measure was extended to Scarborough by the Yorkshire Association. New county associations were founded in Cornwall (by William Johnson Temple), Derbyshire, and Suffolk. However, the larger the movement grew, the more opportunities arose for division. In Sussex on 18 January 1783, the earl of Surrey and Sir Godfrey Webster, fourth baronet [see under Webster family], succeeded in enforcing the proposal of the duke of Richmond for the rejection of 'the broad principle of inequality in election' despite moderate resistance; and the Essex meeting of 10 April 1783 saw its chairman Thomas Brand Hollis succeed in arranging the county's accession to the Quintuple Alliance.

The next change of government in December 1783, as Pitt formed his so-called mince-pie administration, drew further attention to the division of reformers between political parties. Where the association movement had sought in 1780 to provide a platform for opponents of North's administration, it was unable to bring together those parties once North's ministry was dissolved. Wyvill tried, and failed, to persuade Pitt to bring Fox into the government, and came to regard Foxite manoeuvring as unprincipled. Outside Yorkshire leadership was also divided: Westminster continued to look to Fox and regarded Wyvill as an apostate. London and Middlesex leaned towards following Wyvill and supporting Pitt. The divisions were shown in the fiercely fought Westminster election in April–May 1784. Support for Pitt from London and Middlesex was enough to place the Quintuple Alliance behind him, and a motion was carried identifying Pitt and the case for an election with the cause of parliamentary reform. However, Fox was able to exclude his former colleague Sir Cecil Wray, who followed Wyvill and supported Pitt, Pittites also defeated pro-coalition advocates of reform in Middlesex, and John Sawbridge, supporting Fox, narrowly escaped defeat by a Pittite reformer in London.

The divided associators had a much reduced representation in the parliament of 1784, and the movement was shattered between Pittites and Foxites. The only centres of any strength left were the Quintuple Alliance and Yorkshire. In Yorkshire, Wyvill organized a general meeting for 10 February 1785, in order to gather support for Pitt's measure of parliamentary reform, but a sign of weakness was the submission of the petition as an act of the meeting rather than have it circulated round the county for signatures first. Around the country radicals were reluctant to support Pitt, partly through personal loyalty to Fox, and partly because particular ministerial policies (such as the refusal to abandon the prosecution of Shipley for seditious libel) caused offence. The resolution of the Quintuple Alliance on 8 March 1785—that Pitt was 'guiltless of our past misfortunes, and is justifiable in imputing them to the folly or wickedness, or both, of preceding ministers' (Black, 120)—was a further sign of a divided movement, where the cajoling of Wilkes and others was unable to bridge the divide between Foxites and Pittites that had emerged. Pitt's bill was defeated in the Commons by a majority of seventy-four.

In the wake of this defeat there were further meetings of committees in Surrey, Westminster, and Yorkshire, leading to a final meeting at the Thatched House tavern, St James's, London, on 24 May 1785, chaired by the earl of Surrey. Wyvill's proposal in favour of Pitt's bill was defeated 64 to 40 and with this came the defeat and dissolution of the association movement in England and Wales, though not in Scotland. Here, by contrast, county and burgh committees in favour of reform continued to meet and correspond with Wyvill—activities that were maintained until the renewal of reform agitation in the 1790s.


  • E. C. Black, The Association (1963)
  • H. Butterfield, George III, Lord North, and the people, 1779–80 (1949)
  • F. O'Gorman, The rise of party in England: the Rockingham whigs, 1760–1782 (1975)
  • I. R. Christie, Wilkes, Wyvill and reform: the parliamentary reform movement in British politics, 1760–1785 (1962)
  • I. R. Christie, ‘The Yorkshire Association, 1780–4: a study in political organization’, HJ, 3 (1960), 144–61
  • H. T. Dickinson, ‘Radicals and reformers in the age of Wilkes and Wyvill’, British politics and society from Walpole to Pitt, 1742–1789, ed. J. Black (1990), 123–46, 254–8
  • J. Seed, ‘Gentlemen dissenters: the social and political meanings of rational dissent in the 1770s and 1780s’, HJ, 28 (1985), 299–325
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Historical Journal
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L. Namier & J. Brooke, eds., , 3 vols. (1964); repr. (1985)