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The history of Winchelsea

The rotten borough and revival (1760-1832)

Even though Winchelsea had declined to little more than a village by the end of the 16th century, it retained its two seats in parliament, except for a period during the Commonwealth when Cromwell reallocated them to the large but unrepresented midland towns. Daniel Defoe was outraged when he discovered that decayed Winchelsea returned two MPs, commenting that more was spent on elections than the worth of the entire parish.

However, the parliamentary seats were of no benefit to Winchelsea and so there was little local interest in them. From about 1597, this allowed the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports to secure the patronage of at least one of the seats, by controlling the election of Freemen, as only Freemen had a vote. Thus, Winchelsea became a rotten borough.

In order to control the Freemen of Winchelsea, their number was kept to a minimum (in 1792, it was just three), so that any meeting of the Corporation to elect new Freemen could be made inquorate by just one or two of the existing Freemen absenting themselves. Another control on the parliamentary seats was that the mayor was also the Returning Officer for general elections. The abuse of the electoral system at times became so blatant, even by the standards of rotten boroughs, that two mayors --- Paul Wymond in 1623 and Edward Marten in 1700 --- were jailed.

While Winchelsea was a rotten borough, very few Freemen were residents of the town and many others were only nominally resident, or took up residence only upon their election as Freemen. Habitual absentees included the mayor, who was usually non-resident: his day-to-day duties were performed by a deputy.

The control of the Lord Warden over Winchelsea’s parliamentary seats was briefly defied by the Mayor and Corporation when the Duke of York, later James II, became Lord Warden. However, after the Glorious Revolution, the patronage of the seats of the rotten boroughs in the Cinque Port Confederation was secured by the government. Many famous names were MP for Winchelsea but few, if any, had anything to do with the place. One of them, William Wilberforce, once drove through Winchelsea unawares and, after learning where he was, exclaimed, “Why that’s the place I’m member for”.

The government lost the patronage of Winchelsea’s parliamentary seats when one of their agents, Arnold Nesbitt, acquired sufficient property in the town to exert independent control of the Freemen. The government attempted to overturn Nesbitt’s election by challenging the election of some Freemen in a series of legal actions starting in 1766 and known as the Winchelsea Causes.

In vying with others for the patronage of Winchelsea, Nesbitt sparked a brief recovery in Winchelsea’s fortunes. Candidates built new houses for tenants who were Freemen. The windmill was moved to the site of St Leonard’s Church. In 1763, Nesbitt helped to establish the English Linen Company, to regularise a business set up by Huguenot refugees a couple of years earlier to manufacture cambric (a fine linen originally made in Cambrai in France). The raw material was flax grown in the Brede Valley. The cellars of the town offered the constant temperature and humidity needed for working the delicate fibres. Several houses were repaired and new ones built to accommodate the workforce, as well as provide workshops, in Barrack Square and on the corner of North Street and School Hill (now called the Five Houses). At its peak, the company employed 160 spinners, winders and weavers, and 26 apprentices, to work 86 looms. Many of the skilled employees were Huguenots, while the apprentices were children from the local poorhouses. One of the two superintendents of the factory was a Huguenot named Mariteau. He built the house in Monks Walk that bears his name. The company failed in 1769 but was rescued by another Huguenot called Nouvaille. It remained in Winchelsea until 1810, when it was relocated to Norwich, by which time, it was also producing lawn and Italian crepe.

One of the most important patrons of Winchelsea following Nesbitt was William Harry Vane, Earl of Darlington and late the Duke of Cleveland. His connection is commemorated in the names of Cleveland House, Cleveland Cottage and Cleveland Place in Back Lane and Friars Road. Curiously, the patronage of the Duke of Cleveland helped end the rotten boroughs as he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Whigs and instrumental in the Reform Act of 1832.

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