Before 1832 Cheltenham had no MP of its own but was represented by the two county members for Gloucestershire. These dated back to the knights of the shire who represented the county in the earliest parliaments of the 13th century. The first named knights to represent Gloucestershire are recorded in 1283 as Sir Walter de Helion of Ledbury and Sir Roger le Rous who also apparently came from Herefordshire.
The first MP with an obvious connection to Cheltenham was William de Cheltenham elected in 1325 in the reign of Edward III. A significant figure in 14th century Gloucestershire, William was re-elected in 1331 and then to another six parliaments in rapid succession until 1338 – a record not broken by a Cheltenham representative until 1923. In 1339, a John de Cheltenham, perhaps William’s son, was one of the two Gloucestershire MPs and a Maurice de Chiltenham was recorded elected in 1360. Sir Maurice de Berkeley, elected in 1425, is also recorded as holding the manor of Cheltenham, although he was far from being the first of the Berkeley castle clan to represent the county.
Polls and party allegiances are first mentioned in the 17th century and by the turn of the century elections were being furiously contested among the still tiny electorate. Later historians record that in the 1701 election “portmanteaus full of pamphlets and broadsides were sent down from London. Every freeholder in the county had several tracts left at his door”. In Cheltenham 25 votes were cast for the successful ‘Whig’ candidate Richard Cocks and only four for the conservative ‘Tory’ party candidates.
In 1776 a by-election was held when the Tory incumbent Edward Southwell became a member of the House of Lords as Lord Clifford and so disqualified himself from the House of Commons. A by-election contest ensued between the Whig House of Berkeley and the Duke of Beaufort’s Tory candidate William Bromley Chester of ‘Cleve Hill’. £100,000 is said to have been spent on sweetening the few thousand electors – a staggering sum for the time. Cheltenham voted overwhelmingly for the ‘gallant sailor’ George Cranfield Berkeley – by 49 votes to 8 – but the rest of the county didn’t follow suit. Chester was duly elected for the Tory party with 2,919 votes, while Berkeley polled 2,873.
Berkeley succeeded before long. He was elected in 1783 and on a further seven occasions, another one of the astonishing 30 members of the Berkeley family to represent Gloucestershire in Parliament over the centuries – later including his own son Grenville.
Cheltenham gained its own parliamentary representation in the Great Reform Act of 1832, which was passed against furious Tory opposition. It was still barely democratic though – Cheltenham still had only 919 registered electors in 1832, all men of property. And in the end the very first election was unopposed, the seat going to the honourable Craven Berkeley, the seventh son of the Earl of Berkeley and yet another member of the ubiquitous Whig family.
W.R. Williams, The Parliamentary History of the County of Gloucester, privately printed, 1898.
Michael Greet, The De Cheltenham Family in 14th century Gloucestershire, Cheltenham Local History Society Journal 24, CLHS, 2008, pp35-39.
Sally Badham, The de Cheltenham Chantry Chapel at Pucklechurch (Gloucestershire) and its Associated Effigies, Journal of the British Archaelogical Association, Vol 162, 2013. See also A Centuries-old Church Puzzle Solved? (Pucklechurch News, March 2010, now online).
John Goding, Norman’s History of Cheltenham, Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1863, pp 373-374.