The rotten part of the constitution

Vincent Hanna: Master William Pitt, the Even Younger, are you disappointed?

Pitt the Even Younger: Yes I’m horrified. I smeared my opponents, bribed the press to be on my side, and threatened to torture the electorate if we lost. I fail to see what a more decent politician would have done.

Blackadder the Third, Dish and Dishonesty

What was Britain’s most famous rotten borough? Old Sarum? This exposed hill top had just three houses and seven voters in the 1830s but sent two representatives to the House of Commons.

Once a bustling port and capital city, the bulk of Dunwich had slipped into the sea but retained its Parliamentary seats - Dunwich Beach by Ashley Dace [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Or perhaps Dunwich? This formally prosperous seaside town had largely fallen beneath the churning waves of the North Sea. By the 1830s it boasted just 44 houses and 32 voters but also elected two MPs in parliamentary elections.

Personally, I’d go for Dunny-on-the-Wold, the fictional rotten borough that featured prominently in Dish and Dishonesty, the first episode of the third series of Blackadder. An election has been called, and it is vital for Blackadder’s future fortunes that the Prince Regent’s supporters do well. He intends to fix the vote in a notoriously rotten borough, explaining that:

“Dunny-on-the-Wold is a tuppenny- ha’penny place. Half an acre of sodden marshland in the Suffolk Fens with an empty town hall on it. Population: three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named Colin, and a small hen in its late forties.”

Buying votes at a rotten borough - a cartoon from the golden age of political satire

The rigged election leads to the unsurprising outcome of the constituency’s single voter casting 16,472 votes for Blackadder’s chosen candidate, Baldrick. It is revealed that Blackadder is both the constituency’s returning officer (whose predecessor died when he “accidentally brutally stabbed himself in the stomach while shaving”) and voter (whose predecessor “accidentally brutally cut his head off while combing his hair”).

Although exaggerated for comic effect, the reality of Britain’s rotten or pocket boroughs was hardly less scandalous or absurd. Before the Great Reform Act of 1832, the development of Britain’s parliamentary system could, at its most charitable, be described as organic. To a modern eye, it exemplified the corruption of the pre-reform system.

The vast new population centres of Birmingham and Manchester had no separate representation than within the old shire counties to which they geographically belonged. Meanwhile, a decent handful of boroughs with fewer than 100 electors sent two MPs each to sit in the House of Commons. Thomas Paine succinctly explained the problem in his treatsie on Rights of Man:

“The county of York, which contains nearly a million of souls, sends two county members; and so does the county of Rutland, which contains not an hundredth part of that number. The old town of Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upward of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any. Is there any principle in these things?”

Polling-at-an-election by William-Hogarth-c-1757

One of most egregious examples of the phenomena was the borough of Gatton in Surrey. It was centred on Gatton Park and had little else that warranted its royally conferred rights to send two representatives to Parliament. By 1831, Gatton’s voter roll had sunk to seven. Gatton’s notoriety came from it being bought and sold, with a phenomenal six-figure price tag for the estate mainly deriving from its parliamentary rights.

Other examples included the Isle of Wight’s Newtown, a once thriving port that had been devastated by French raids and eclipsed by the better defended Newport. By 1832, Newtown only had 23 burgesses out of a population of 68. Bramber and Steyning, in Sussex, were small villages that were so close together that they overlapped; some residents of Bramber could also vote in Steyning. Despite populations of just under two hundred each, both villages sent two MPs to Parliament.

So how had this happened? The right to send MPs to parliament was conferred on boroughs and counties. Boroughs had royal charters conferring on them a set of rights, including the right to send up to two MPs to sit in the House of Commons.

This was all fine and sensible when the cathedral city of Salisbury had been centred on the high bluffs of Old Sarum or when the port of Dunwich was second only to London in importance and was a flourishing commercial centre. But when the population of Old Sarum moved en masse down the hill to the river valley below or when the bulk of Dunwich slipped into the sea, its royally conferred rights were not removed.

Old Sarum had once been a cathedral city. The people had left, but its Parliamentary seats remained - Old_Sarum_castle_ditch By Nessino (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, a process that had developed over centuries suddenly sped up as industrialisation fed the urbanisation of the country. Huge new industrial towns sprang up, many times larger in population than all but the largest enfranchised royal boroughs. Unless they were given borough status, they would enjoy none of those corporate rights and could not send their own MPs to parliament.

The Peterloo Massacre By Richard Carlile (1790–1843) (Manchester Library Services) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst the rotten borough could be described as an accident of history, a pocket borough was an altogether more corrupt entity. These were boroughs that were effectively controlled by area’s largest and most important landlord. In an age of public ballots, it was a brave tenant farmer who voted against the interests of the powerful land owner. As there was no secret ballot, the landowner could and often did evict residents who did not vote for the person he wanted.

By the 1820s, the system was far from a quirky accident of British political history; it was rapidly becoming a political issue that divided the nation and threatened to destabilise the authority of Parliament.

The very words used to describe these anomalous political entities is a stark reminder of how they were viewed by many – these were the rotten, decayed, corrupt and pocket boroughs of Britain.

The pressure for reform was so great that some historians believe the Reform Act 1832 came just in time to avoid serious disturbances, even revolution, across the country.

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