Carrickfergus was reputed to have received its original charter from King John, who built a castle there. It received another charter from Edward II in 1326 and two from Elizabeth I. In 1567, 11 Eliz. I incorporated it as a county borough. It had therefore an electorate composed of both freeholders and householders, and in 1602 its boundaries were defined by another charter, 44 Eliz. I. It was the county town for Antrim and its administrative centre, but electorally it was a county borough and thus technically separate from it. To a certain extent it tended to mimic the county but as it had a comparatively large electorate elections were usually contested and often lively. The Chichesters generally controlled the return for one seat but a variety of interests, transient and permanent, competed for the other. Lord Belfast was returned at the by-election following his brother's (0398, returned for both Carrickfergus and Belfast) decision to sit for Belfast. He was sworn on 24 April 1780.
Until 1715 various members of the Davys family represented the county borough. They had estates in the vicinity and were probably connected with the Donegall family. However, during the reign of Queen Anne they supported the Tory faction, and they ceased to sit in parliament after 1714. In contrast, Edward Lyndon, who was returned in 1703, was a Whig. He had formerly been an MP for Armagh borough but had an estate in the vicinity of Carrickfergus and with a short break, 1715-8, he and his son, John, represented the borough until the latter's death in 1741.
At the beginning of the reign of George I the county borough was represented by Archibald Edmonstone of Broadisland and his brother-in-law, Alexander Dalway. Like the Uptons, the Edmonstones34 and Dalways represented the Presbyterian interest. Although Dalway died in February 1717/8 and Edward Lyndon was returned in his place, the family were a factor in Carrickfergus politics throughout the century.
In the general election of 1727 the county borough was contested and Arthur Dobbs of Castle Dobbs,35 a member of another Carrickfergus family, was returned along with John Lyndon. Dobbs, who despite his absences sat for the entire 33-year parliament, was a man of considerable political and intellectual activity. He was a foundation member of the Dublin Society in 1731. He was an engineer and in 1733 he succeeded Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (1646) as Surveyor General of Fortifications and Buildings and as such was responsible for the completion of the Parliament House. From 1754 to 1765 he was Governor of South Carolina, and a great encourager of emigration there from Co. Antrim. Emigration from Ulster to North America was not new and, while throughout the century it intensified during periods of famine and distress, the mainspring of the Ulster emigration was not so much poverty and starvation as the desire for civil and religious liberty; in this it resembled the English emigration of the seventeenth century rather than the great Irish emigration of the nineteenth century. In 1754 Dobbs received a vote of thanks from the mayor, sheriffs and burgesses and the Corporation for his representation of their interests in parliament. John Lyndon died in August 1741 and Arthur Upton came in at the ensuing by-election. Subsequently Upton sat for Carrickfergus until his death in 1768.
Unlike the rest of the county in 1768, Carrickfergus provided a scene of considerable conflict. Lord Donegall, as the proprietor of the soil in the county borough, could command the return for one of its two seats, but the other seat was independent, although Lord Donegall attempted to control it also. For the sure seat the Earl of Donegall nominated his brother, the Hon. John Chichester, and along with him Marriot Dalway, while the independent interest supported Conway Richard Dobbs and Edward Smyth,probably the former MP for Lisburn (1946). Lord Donegall's influence and patronage in Carrickfergus are illustrated by the following report in theBelfast News Letter:
Carrickfergus July 1st 1768: Hearing that the honourable John Chichester, Esq. one of our candidates, intended us the honour of a visit next day, his friends the Aldermen, Burgesses and Freemen, unanimously agreed to receive him with that distinction and respect so justly due by us to him and the Donegall family; in pursuance of which he was escorted into the town by ninety-five of the principal gentlemen on horseback, (much greater numbers of horsemen detained by the rainy morning arriving after his entrance into the town) and conducted to his lodgings amidst the repeated acclamations and joyful huzzas of the freemen, joined with multitudes of all ranks, ages and sexes there assembled to show their respect to Mr. Chichester He and his company were then invited to do us the honour of dining with us, which he accepted with that innate affability and condescension so peculiar to the whole family from which he is descended. Every loyal and suitable toast to the occasion were drank, and the evening concluded with harmony, mirth and good humour, as indeed nothing else could prevail where one of the Donegall family presided.
In view of the election result, in which only one of Lord Donegall's candidates was returned, this excessively favourable press appears peculiar. Perhaps its origin lies in the fact that Lord Donegall, who was the landlord, was personally unknown and doubtless rumours of his intended reorganisation of his estate had reached Carrickfergus. The population of Carrickfergus was approximately 3,225, and the electorate numbered about 900. In 1768 the election lasted from Tuesday 12 July to Saturday 16 July, and at the closing of the poll 1,167 votes had been cast, of which the Hon. John Chichester had received 392, Conway Richard Dobbs 371, Marriot Dalway 333 and Edward Smyth 71. Marriot Dalway petitioned against the return of Conway Richard Dobbs on the grounds that he had secured his majority through the well-worn accusation of 'bribery, corruption and undue influence', but the petition was not decided owing to the premature prorogation of parliament in December 1769. Lord Hertford also had some interest36 in this borough, in addition to one of the major interests in the county. It is interesting to notice that although independent, Dobbs was connected with Lord Hertford as Dalway, who also had some claims of his own, was with Lord Donegall. In the latter part of the century Lord Hillsborough also claimed an interest. To a certain extent Carrickfergus provided a vent for the frustrations of the citizens of rapidly developing Belfast, which was a close borough.
In contrast, the election of 1776 was fought against the serious breakdown in landlord-tenant relations outlined above as well the revolt of the American colonies. There was a three-cornered election for Carrickfergus between Conway Richard Dobbs, who led the poll, Barry Yelverton, who was Lord Donegall's candidate - 'an honest, downright man of strong understanding but with little knowledge of the world', he proposed the 1782 amendment of Poynings' Law - and the unsuccessful candidate, Marriot Dalway. Yelverton was an example of a self-made man who came up through the legal profession. In 1770 Agmondisham Vesey (2145) warned the Chief Secretary, Sir George Macartney (1302), that Yelverton was 'a man so rooted in habits of republicanism, of American opposition, and chained down by strong coarse and decided sentiments of faction, besides being a dependent of Lord Donegall's, of obscure origins and slender fortune ' However, he was created Lord Avonmore in 1795 and advanced to a viscountcy at the Union.
At Carrickfergus in 1783 there was no contest: Conway Richard Dobbs and the popular Yelverton were 'unanimously re-elected members for our ancient and loyal corporation. It being the only instance in the memory of the oldest inhabitant of this county of an election without a contest.' Trouble had been expected as Lord Hillsborough, who had some influence at Carrickfergus, had written to Lord Lieutenant Northington that 'The election for Carrickfergus is coming on In my poor opinion two regiments would not be too much. One I am certain is absolutely necessary.'37 However, in 1784 Barry Yelverton was elevated to the bench as Chief Justice of the Exchequer, and the ensuing by-election was bitterly fought. The Belfast merchant Waddell Cunningham was returned but challenged by Ezekiel Davys Wilson, who unseated him on petition. Cunningham, a leading Belfast businessman, was described by Lord Hillsborough to Lord Northington as 'a rank American republican'. In the same letter he indicated the importance of the sheriffs, who were the returning officers at county and county borough elections, writing that he 'wished the two sheriffs were to be depended upon; they are my tenants, but I fear bad men; one of them is always drunk'.38
At Carrickfergus in 1790, Ezekiel Davys Wilson, the popular local candidate, led the poll. Next was Alexander Hamilton, who had no interest in the town and was probably Lord Donegall's candidate - he was returned for Belfast in 1798. As usual, the 1797 election for Carrickfergus was contested, but this time Lord Donegall supported his son, Lord Spencer Stanley Chichester, who headed the poll with a handsome majority, polling 611 of the 1,497 votes cast. He was followed by Ezekiel Davys Wilson, who polled 532; James Craig had only 363. The poll was down from 1790, when 1,870 votes were cast, suggesting a total electorate well above 1,000. Lord Spencer Stanley Chichester had also been returned for Belfast, and he elected to sit for that borough. At Carrickfergus his place was taken by his elder brother, the Earl of Belfast, who in 1799 became Marquess of Donegall. Noah Dalway came in at the ensuing by-election and was sworn on 15 January 1800. Carrickfergus retained one seat at the Union and Noah Dalway won the ballot, but the Marquess of Donegall's brother, Lord Spencer Stanley Chichester, was returned at the 1802 election.