Newtown(ards) was enfranchised by a 1614 charter of James I; its corporation included a provost, 12 free burgesses, freemen and two serjeants-at-mace. At the beginning of the century it had come into the hands of the Colvill family, who in the 1670s had bought the estates of Newtown(ards) and then of Comber from Hugh Montgomery, 2nd Earl of Mount Alexander. His son, Hugh Colvill (0451), died on 7 February 1700/1 leaving a daughter, Alice, and an infant son, Robert (0453). His widow then married Brabazon Ponsonby (1696), who thereby became Robert Colvill's guardian and the manager of his estates and parliamentary interest.141 In his majority Colvill proved a wild and unstable character, giving the Ponsonbys hope that their younger son, John (1702), might inherit his estate. However, Colvill had a mistress, Martha Lauders, whom he eventually married and she persuaded him to sell the estates to Alexander Stewart (5026). Stewart had just married the wealthy heiress Mary Cowan and part of her dowry was to be invested in land; this was choice property and near his friends and connections in liberal radical Presbyterian Belfast. The sale went through, but the question of the parliamentary borough then arose. It was said that an additional £500 would purchase the borough, which was by this time securely in the hands of Brabazon Ponsonby, now Lord Bessborough.
Alexander Stewart thought, prehaps naïvely, that as he owned the ground on which the borough stood he would automatically become its proprietor. However, Lord Abercorn owned the land of St Johnstown (Donegal) but the corporation, with its right to return MPs, had been captured by William Forward, while Lord Abercorn in 1790 became the patron of the corporation of Augher, in which he had no property at all. The Newtown Act, 21 Geo. II, c. 10,142 confirmed and solidified a situation that already existed, namely the divorce for political purposes between the corporation and the town itself. It removed the potential of any future flexibility should the basis of the franchise, by which both Catholics and Dissenters were for most of the century excluded, change. Inevitably this bifurcation had a detrimental effect on the economic and social development of the town, although the Stewarts appear to have tried to reduce this as much as possible.
From about 1703 until the death of John Ponsonby in 1787 the Ponsonbys controlled Newtown(ards), and members of the family frequently represented it or used it to safeguard their return for another seat. Shortly after John Ponsonby's death, George Ponsonby (1699) exchanged it with Lord Caledon (0029) for Banagher in King's County; both received £15,000 for the disfranchisement of their respective boroughs at the Union. In 1787 Mrs McTier wrote to her brother, Dr William Drennan, illustrating how such transfers took place: 'We dined at Newtown and the same day Nabob Alexander was entertaining under the noses of the Stewarts his burgesses for the borough for which he paid £10,000 [?Banagher which he exchanged with George Ponsonby]. The two Alexanders of Belfast, one of Derry, Hammy McClure, his brother in law, Arthur Johnston etc. were appointed and J. Crawford made mayor.'143