(Extracts from a Study on the above subject prepared by Dr A.P.W. Malcomson of the Public Record Office, Belfast.)
The Irish act of 21 George III. cap. 10, and more particularly its eighth clause, derived its nickname from the borough of Newtown, now Newtownards, Co.Down, which was then and for a decade thereafter in dispute between the families of Ponsonby and Stewart. According to the wording of its preamble, the eighth clause was designed merely ' ...for the more effectual quieting of corporations and securing the rights of persons who have been or shall be elected into the offices of aldermen and burgesses'
The preamble to the eighth clause of the Newtown act goes on the state that, owing the a death of protestant inhabitants of appropriate standing, many corporations have been forced, in violation of their charters, to elect as burgesses and other officers persons who are not resident within their precincts; and the clause prupeorts only to be giving legal authority to an existing situation, by 'quieting' such persons in teh possession of thier offices. Historians, on the other hand, have seen the dispensing with the residence qualification as a pernicious innovation, not as a legislation of the status quo. Accordingly they have blamed the Newtown act for strengthening the hands of borough patrons and curtailing still further the independence of the corporations, and all this merely to gratify the particular local ambitions of one over-powerful family, the Ponsonbys, at the expense of their rivals, the Stewarts.
In 1744 Alexander Stewart had purchased an estate upon which was the borough of Newtownards. The seller of the estate had offered to transfer his who influence over the burgesses to the purchaser for the trifling sum of £500, which the latter, supposing it impossible that the borough should not necessarily fall into the hands of him who possessed the estate, positively refused to do; and the borough was afterwards bought by the Ponsonby family, through whose influence in parliament an act was soon afterwards passed, the most outrageous and unconstitutional that ever was enacted. Residence had till now been deemed necessary to electors, but by this law, which as a proof of its source in private interest, was impudently termed the Newtown act, all residence was dispensed with and in consequence burgesses were elected resident in the parts of Ireland the most distant from the borough, who, on the days of election, were sent down to vote either for members or for magistrates. And thus the borough was firmly placed in the hands of the purchaser, though possessed of neither estate nor interest in the county, to the utter exclusion of the town and its vicinity, and consequently of Mr. Stewart, by whose land it was surrounded.
Brabazon Ponsonby, earl of Bessborough, at that time the head of the family, had until 1744 possessed great indirect 'interest' in the county in the right of his wife's son, Robert Colvill, the man who sold the manors of Newtown and Mount Alexander to Stewart. Colvill was still a minor when his mother married Bessborough and Bessborough managed all his affairs for him. Even after he came of age, he continued to be incapable of managing them for himself and soon proved to be of a suicidal disposition, 'wild and indecent' in his conversation and 'disordered in his understanding'. In 1721 he made a will by which he left his Co. Down property to Bessborough's second son, John Ponsonby; from 1731 to 1744 Bessborough held the manor of Newtown, on which the borough stood, in trust for him; and from 1713 to 1715, 1725 to 1727 and 1739 onwards Bessborough, John Ponsonby or other members of the Ponsonby family represented the borough in parliament.
In 1744 the link between the Ponsonbys and Co. Down was severed. By that time Colvill had fallen entirely under the influence of his mistress, on Martha Launders, who turned him against Bessborough and prevailed on him to sell the whole of the estate which John Ponsonby was due to inherit. Until then, however, the Ponsonbys had great expectations and great indirect interest in the county. It was Stewart, not they, who was the outsider. Although he had served his time in nearby Belfast for a while had set up business there, he had afterwards moved to London. There he had met and married his cousin, Mary Cowan, the heiress of a 'nabob' of Co.Derry origins, 'before she was aware of what man or money was'. It was out of her fortune of nearly £100,000 that £42,000 purchase money for Newtown and Mount Alexander had come.
The eighth clause of the act was couched in the future tense; its words were ' ...no person who hath been or shall be elected or shall be elected into any of the said offices or franchises ..... shall be ousted ..... or be an ways sued, prosecuted or molested .....' merely because eh was a non-resident. These words where not retrospective in their effect; so Stewart, who had already, in 1747, begun proceedings against the nine burgesses of Newtown who were non-resident by moving for information's against them in the Irish King's bench, was free to press his advantage home. In Michaelmas term (November 1748) the court pronounced in his favor, ousted the nine from their offices and declared them incapable of being re-elected. Bessborough replied by bringing the case by writ of error into the king's bench in England, where, after much expense and many delays, the judgment of the Irish court was reversed in Michaelmas 1755. Stewart appealed against this, but in 1758 the British house of lords, the highest tribunal to which the case could go, confirmed the decision of the British king's bench. Then and only then was the struggle over Newtownards resolved, and without reference to the Newtown act which, though it was quoted, was not used in the arguments put forward by the lawyers on Bessborough's side.
The struggle, as has been seen, was brought to an end by judicial decision at the highest level, the British house of lords. Bessborough's ultimate success in it meant, in effect, that even without the Newtown act it was virtually impossible to oust a burgess on the ground of non-residence alone.
This is not to say that the act achieved little or nothing. In fact it achieved a great deal. The final judicial decision on Newtownards was, after all, not pronounced until ten years after the passing of the act. If it had been passed, and if Stewart's example had been widely followed, a large number of boroughs would, in the short term, have been thrown into confusion.
In 1788 The Ponsonbys and James Alexander of Calendon, Co. Tyrone, decided that it would be to their mutual convenience to swap their respective boroughs of Newtownards and Banagher, King's Co.; accordingly, Alexander introduced into Newtownards a new quota of Absentee burgessess and celebrated their election with a dinner held 'under the noses of the Stewarts .....' With successive patrons who had no geographical or economic connection with Newtownards, it is small wonder that the town did not prosper, in spite of the efforts of the Stewarts; in 1773 John Wesley described it as ' ....dreary Newtown .....More ruined than ever and very ruinous even by Irish standards'. After the passing of the octennial act, patrons could expect a realistic price if they sold their borough patronage; but they could not expect compensation for the economic consequences to their estates.
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