Old Sarum in Wiltshire, a ruined medieval abbey, was the most notorious rotten or pocket borough in Britain. This wind swept ruin in Wiltshire was the possession of the Pitt family from the mid-17th century until 1802, and one of its Members of Parliament was Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder. It had three houses and seven voters! In 1802 the Pitt family sold it for £60,000, (being a Member of Parliament was a lucrative business even then) the land and manorial rights were worth only £700 a year.

The term ‘rotten borough‘ came into use in the 18th century; it meant a parliamentary borough with a tiny electorate that could be controlled by a single landlord. This was possible as there was no secret ballot until 1870. The rotten boroughs were swept away in with the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832.

Other pocket or rotten boroughs included:

Gatton in Surrey – 23 houses and 7 voters

Newtown on the Isle of Wight – 14 houses and 23 voters

East Looe in Cornwall – 167 houses and 38 voters

Dunwich in Suffolk –  44 houses and 32 voters (most of this formerly prosperous town having fallen into the sea)

Plympton Erle in Devon – 182 houses and 40 voters. One seat was controlled from the mid-17th century to 1832 by the Treby family of Plympton House.

Bramber in West Sussex – 35 houses and 20 voters

Callington in Cornwall – 225 houses and 42 voters. It was a pocket borough of the Rolle family of Heanton Satchville and Stevenstone in Devon.

Trim in County Meath (Parliament of Ireland)

Who could vote?

Statutes passed in 1430 and 1432, during the reign of Henry VI, standardised property qualifications for county voters. Under these Acts, all owners of freehold property or land worth at least forty shillings in a particular county were entitled to vote in that county. This requirement, known as the forty shilling freehold, was never adjusted for inflation; thus the amount of land one had to own in order to vote gradually diminished over time. The franchise was restricted to men by custom rather than statute; on rare occasions women were able to vote in parliamentary elections as a result of property ownership.

In the borough or towns who voted was based on ancient conventions, for example if you were a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge University you might be entitled to vote in some towns and in others you got the vote if you lived in a certain property or paid a certain amount of tax. Non-conformists, Catholics and Jews were not allowed to vote.

Voting in the pre-Reform Act period was regarded as a public duty undertaken on behalf of the community as a whole, and it was quite normal for candidates to reward their supporters in the form of ‘treating’ – usually by providing plentiful free beer, or issuing other victuals to voters and their supporters on production of a ticket.

Less enjoyable were the threats of retaliation that might be made against voters who failed to back the landlord’s favoured candidates; they might find their rent increased by a vindictive boroughmonger, or they might even lose their home.

It was hoped that introducing the Secret Ballot in 1870 [which was extended generally in the Ballot Act 1872] might reduce such open corruption, but keeping their own vote secret only encouraged voters to demand treats from both sides, knowing that the chance of reprisals was now much lower.

The pre-reform act arrangements allowed MPs and the party leaders to be much younger than their equivalents today. William Pitt the Younger was elected MP for the pocket borough of Appleby at the age of 21, and went on, only two years later, to become the country’s youngest prime minister. His great rival, the Whig leader Charles James Fox, was so young when he entered parliament that he wasn’t actually old enough to vote! He was elected at the age of just 19, even though 21 was the voting age.

In tomorrow’s post I will look at women in Parliament.

Illustration: Old Sarum by John Constable.

Julia Herdman lives and works in Leicester, UK. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1 is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29

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