Family Feudes - October 2011
For more than a hundred years they fought over any major scheme in the town, competed in business and tried to outdo one another in the grandness of their houses. Their fight was linked to the fight to reform the voting system in Britain but was much more personal that that – and influenced the development of the town hugely.
It began, as such things often do, with a snub.
John Seale, a merchant from Jersey stock who had bought the Mount Boone estate, tried to get into the establishment in Dartmouth – he wanted to be declared a freeman. Freemen had the vote and were part of the upper strata of the social pile. To be one of the very few freemen with the vote was to have influence.
Influence can have perks. One MP from the period shows in his accounts that he spent, in one go, £131 on ‘the freemen’ of his borough – or just gave them cash to vote for him. In today’s money that is equivalent to £200,000. Buying votes and favour.
In the 1780s it’s estimated 214,000 people - less than 3 percent of the total population of approximately 8 million – had the vote. John Seale wanted to be part of the establishment in Dartmouth.
The Holdsworth family were so much a part of the establishment they practically ran it. They were rich merchants who had built up their wealth over centuries, and were linked through marriage to every other major lineage in the town – the Newmans, Hunts, Roopes, Brookings and the Teagues.
They traded far and wide, employed more people in town than any other family and made sure whenever a new development happened in the town, they got the credit.
They were so much in control that they could pick and choose who were on the borough council, and therefore dictate what was built, how changes in taxes affected them and basically, make sure they remained on top.
John Seale was not ‘their kind of man’. He was the very embodiment of ‘new money’. When someone like that comes into a sealed and protected society like Dartmouth, they cause ripples - and John Seale definitely caused ripples when he failed to become a freeman.
Linking with John Southcote, another merchant who had come into money when a distant relative had died childless, John tried to make sure the Holdsworths never had it easy.
In 1739 they ended up in court over the right to use the Coombe Mud.
The Coombe mud, where Coronation Park is now, was harvested by the Dartmouth Corporation, which was run by the town council. The mud was sold as ballast for merchant ships and was a very profitable business. Seale claimed that as the Coombe Estate – which he had bought when he bought Mount Boone – ran down to the Mud, he should have ownership down to the low water mark, meaning only he could harvest the mud.
The council reacted, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather badly to this, and the fight went all the way to the county court.
Against the expectations of many, Seale won.
The council tried to get around this by ignoring it and sent some of their men to fish there – John Seale personally walked into the water and cut the men’s nets – a symbolic gesture which was seen as an even more dramatic challenge than taking the council to court.
Southcote died in 1744, but his son, Henry, became even closer with Seale and became his lieutenant in his fights with the ruling elite.
He came up against the council in 1749, when he challenged the custom for the aldermen, bailiffs and any boys of the town, to walk around the edge of the whole borough.
It was a symbolic gesture and one which seemed to subtly indicate that the council could go wherever it pleased, with its representatives walking across the land of whoever they pleased, or so it seemed to Southcote and Seale.
The procession was to walk across Southcote’s land in South Town, and the procession would, it was known, break down a hedge onto it. Southcote objected, to no avail, so he ordered 20 of his employees to stand across the route with large sticks and use force to stop the procession if necessary.
This also went to court, and was won by the corporation.
Southcote carried on fighting, but his early death at the age of 30 meant that Seale was left with fewer allies. He also died in 1777, but his son – confusingly also called John – carried on the fight.
He began to build a quay north of the Coombe Mud. The council were yet again enraged and took the family to court. The council lost, and the legal costs for them were astronomical at the time.
Now the Seale family was really warming to the role of agitator against the ruling classes and brought the town’s merchants who were not part of the Holdsworth cabal together. With Machievellian cunning, they pointed out that the merchants could avoid paying customs tax by becoming freemen in other places, such as Bristol.
This reduced the amount of income for the Corporation.
In 1784 Arthur Holdsworth, MP for the town, was negotiating with the Duchy of Cornwall for the right to charge users of the river – in the same way Dart Harbour does today – he claimed the amount the corporation collected, because of the merchants’ dodge, should be reduced.
The son of Henry Southcote, John Henry, who had grown up to be yet again a supporter of the Seale cause, offered to buy the rights himself, for much more than the Corporation would pay.
He justified this by innocently stating that he had spoken to the men who collected the money from visiting ships and claimed it was much more than the Corporation had collected. This meant that either the Corporation was incompetently allowing the men it employed to pocket much of the money they collected or were trying to trick the Duchy. They received a massive fine of £360 and then had to pay more to the Duchy each year. It was a massive victory for the Seales and Southcotes.
But the main fight had always been about the vote – as the Holdsworths had basically run the town for more than a hundred years.
Throughout this period Seales and Southcotes repeatedly stood for election as MP against the Holdsworths and their relatives, even though none of either family was allowed to vote. They even organised gangs of inhabitants to lobby the Guildhall for their right to vote but to no avail. One memorable time when the vote was won by a Mr Edward Bastard, gaining 35 votes to John Seale’s 8 (total votes cast: 72).
It appears to have inspired John Seale to take a different tack – he began to campaign for electoral reform. His campaign resulted in Dartmouth becoming known as the worst sort of rotten borough. The Dartmouth Corporation and the Holdsworth family in particular, came to represent the injustice of the electoral system in the early 19th century.
Although John Seale died in 1824, his campaign paid dividends. When the Reform Act - a much maligned piece of legislation, but a symbolic shift which paved the way for our modern democracy – of 1832 came into effect, the Holdworths and their relatives were dumped out of office. No one from the family held a position of power in Dartmouth again.
It had taken more than 100 years but the Seales had repaid that original snub and how.
First published October 2011 By the Dart