Co. Down was a large and - except for the Mourne mountains in the south - fertile county and, as the century progressed, the linen trade added to its prosperity while its proximity to Belfast encouraged the investment in estates of wealthy merchants. Co. Down was not a plantation county, but it had long been infiltrated partly by English but largely by Scottish settlers, whose influence was particularly strong in the north of the county. Its large Presbyterian settlement gave it probably the largest electorate in Ireland in the eighteenth century. For most of the century the dominant families were the Hills of Hillsborough, the Wards of Castle Ward and the Colvills and later the Stewarts of Newtown(ards). But there were many less prominent but substantial families; for example, the Savages of Portaferry, the Prices of Hollymount, the Fordes of Seaforde and the Rawdons of Moira. Robert Hawkins Magill was not able to exercise his influence fully, as he died leaving only a daughter, Theodosia,134 who married the spendthrift Sir John Meade(1388), later created Earl of Clanwilliam. In 1793 Lady Clanwilliam sounded her Ward relatives with a view to having her son returned on the death of Lord Downshire but it did not come to anything, probably because the new Lord Downshire gave his support to Francis Savage. Another influence that did not fully exert itself in the eighteenth century was that of the Annesleys of Castlewellan. The great English grandees were the Conways, Earls and later Marquesses of Hertford, whose estates straddled Counties Antrim and Down, including the Co. Antrim town of Lisburn.
Elections were usually fought on unstable alliances between representatives of the dominant three or their nominee to which various minor interests attached themselves. This is reflected in the returns; for instance, Francis Savage, who was returned in 1794 and 1797, was the favoured candidate of the Marquess of Downshire (1016), who did not have a member of his immediate family of age. The male line of this branch of the Hamiltons died out in the early eighteenth century and Sir James Hamilton's two daughters, Anne Catherine and Margaret, were his residuary heirs. They married respectively Michael Ward (2180) and Thomas Butler, Viscount Ikerrin; Margaret's son was created Earl of Carrick. Roger Hall had excellent credentials: he was married to Catherine Savage and was the father-in-law of William Brownlow (0265) and a cousin of both Lord Hillsborough and Lord Kildare (0734).
The Stewarts, who bought the Colvill estate in 1744, were considered upstarts - merchants and Presbyterians - and every effort was made to exclude them not only from Co. Down but even from national politics. Alexander Stewart (5026) was returned for Londonderry city in 1760 and then declared not duly elected. His son, Robert Stewart, was returned for Co. Down at the 1771 by-election following the elevation of Bernard Ward to the peerage as Lord Bangor, and he was again returned in 1776 when pro-American feeling was running high among the Presbyterians of Co. Down and Stewart had a reputation as a radical liberal Presbyterian.135 Then in 1783 the Hills and the Wards combined to defeat him. Stewart challenged the return: the findings of the committee were published and are one of the few reports on a controverted election that have survived. The committee that heard the case was largely from the south, with the exception of the chairman, William John Skeffington (1936).136
The poll, commencing on 14 August 1783 and ending on 5 September, lasted 22 days. It was held at Downpatrick, the county town of Co. Down. Stewart's estate was the most distant and therefore the majority of his voters had the furthest to travel; they were mainly farmers and the harvest season was at its height. The Sheriff, Richard Annesley (0048), said that he would poll from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: this was not to be altered except with the consent of the candidates and the Sheriff kept this ruling until 3 September, two days after Lord Kilwarlin, who was clearly ahead, gave his spare votes (i.e. directed his supporters who had not yet cast their votes) to Edward Ward, who had exhausted his voters. It had been agreed that the poll would be carefully timed and polled in tallies of 10, which allowed candidates to arrange their voters, especially when they had to come from a distance. Moreover, 'The poll was in the season of harvest and the weather was very bad. Mr Stewart instructed his agents to bring each day only sufficient to fulfill the tallies for the day.' Then on 5 September, a wet and stormy day, the Sheriff suddenly declared that he would continue the poll beyond 4 p.m. and complete the election that day. Ward was then ahead by 114 votes, but Stewart still had 160 to poll. The committee found for the sitting members, and declared that the conduct of the Sheriff had been correct and finally that the petition of Robert Stewart and others, freeholders of the County of Down, was frivolous, vexatious and groundless and that they should pay the costs of trying the petition.
By the time of the next election in 1790 Robert Stewart was Lord Londonderry and therefore ineligible to stand again. His son and namesake was not quite of age: he was born on 18 June 1769 and polling began on 23 May 1790. However, the poll lasted three months and at its end he had achieved not only a seat but also his majority. The Wards and the Hills had fallen out and the young Robert Stewart was now allied with Edward Ward against Lord Kilwarlin (1016) since the recent elevation of his father, Lord Hillsborough, to the Marquessate of Downshire. The election was probably one of the longest, hardest fought and most expensive in the history of the Irish parliament. The Belfast News Letter gave a poll-by-poll tally to its eager readers. The election was reputed - but the story lost nothing in the telling - to have cost the Marquess of Downshire £30,000 and Lord Londonderry double that amount. Lord Hillsborough and Robert Stewart were returned.
In 1794 Lord Hillsborough's father died and he succeeded him in the marquessate; two years later the elevation of Lord Londonderry to an earldom made Robert Stewart Lord Castlereagh. Lord Downshire returned Francis Savage in his place. Savage and Castlereagh were both returned without contest in 1797,137 and both went into the united parliament in 1800. Lord Downshire committed suicide in 1801 and although Lady Downshire (neé Mary Sandys, the greatest heiress of her day) was very willing to carry on the fight with the Stewarts she was somewhat mollified by a British peerage with remainder to her younger sons, although she was not particularly pleased when her eldest son came of age in 1809 and arrived at a rapprochement with the Stewarts.138
Co. Down had six boroughs - Bangor, Downpatrick, Hillsborough, Killyleagh, Newry and Newtown(ards).