The Age of George III

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The County Associations 1779

In 1779, besides all his other problems, Lord North's ministry faced difficulties with the country gentlemen - the backbone of agricultural England, parliament and popular opinion - when Christopher Wyvill set up the County Association. The country gentlemen formed the bulk of the electorate in the counties: they were the conservative element of the constitution. These men had borne the brunt of taxation since about 1756, paying for wars and the National Debt through the Land Tax which stood at 4/- in the £. By 1779 the National Debt stood at £167 millions and further taxation was needed to repay the loans. Land, property and trade were all taxed. Those paying the taxes were receiving no returns because the war was being lost.

Christopher Wyvill, a Yorkshire clergyman and landowner, set up the Yorkshire County Association in 1779. This was the gentleman's equivalent of Cartwright's Society for the Promotion of Constitutional Information.

The aim of the Yorkshire County Association was to petition parliament to

Although Wyvill thought that he controlled the Yorkshire Association, and although Rockingham was not directly involved, it is interesting to note that of the Yorkshire Association's Committee of 61, some 48 were committed Rockingham Whigs. The secretary of the Association, Stephen Croft, was Rockingham's political agent in York. There is a large collection of correspondence between Rockingham and Croft which discusses the business of the Yorkshire Association; almost all of Rockingham's advice/ suggestions/comments reappear in the Minutes of Association meetings courtesy of Croft.

Wyvill's Association was copied by another twelve counties. Wyvill set up a London headquarters for his Associations where petitions could be received and submitted to parliament and from whence MPs could be lobbied. Wyvill also intended that the Associations would select only parliamentary candidates who subscribed to the "Articles of Association" for the election of 1780. Wyvill got the support of Fox (who chaired some meetings) and the Pittites led by Shelburne. The Association was potentially the most dangerous occurrence for the government because government relied on the country gentry for support. The gentry provided a model and precedent for the developing working classes to follow.

The demands of the Associations were out of touch: the industrial towns of the north were growing and had no parliamentary representation. For example, Sheffield, with a population of 32,000, had no MP. The industrial revolution was beginning to create a new socially and politically underprivileged group which was starting to feel its collective strength. The squirearchy apparently was unaware of the demands from the new working classes for representation and political rights.

Following the 1780 Gordon Riots [see also Lord George Gordon], the County Associations moderated their activities. They saw the effects of crowd action being used in support of political aims and became worried and realised that the County Associations could spark off violence, since obviously politics were no longer the sole prerogative of gentlemen. There were new, active elements in political life, so the County Associations withdrew and took on a much lower profile. This was the first and last time that the country gentlemen opposed the government in this way and it is very rare to find them calling out the crowd to get popular support. Riots created a fear of reform. This was the beginning of the end of the acceptance of reform by the established political classes because of the fear of mob rule.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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