Politics in the 18th Century – Parliamentary Boroughs

Anyone who thinks corruption in politics is a modern phenomenon needs only to research for a few minutes into the political systems of the past to realise that it has always been the case. Where there is power, there is corruption, and the period my books are set in was no exception to the rule.

One of the corrupt issues I mention in The Ladies’ Tale, is that of Parliamentary boroughs. A Parliamentary borough was a town which had been incorporated under a royal charter, which gave it the right to elect MPs to the House of Commons. The problem was that many of these boroughs or constituencies had been incorporated centuries earlier, and had never been updated, during which time heavily populated towns had disappeared from some areas, leaving them with only a few houses, and in other formerly rural areas new towns had grown. This resulted in the ridiculous situation of constituencies such as Sarum, which had once been a busy cathedral city, but by the 18th century consisted of 3 houses with a total of 7 voters, and yet still elected two MPs, whilst Manchester, which was rapidly expanding from a tiny settlement into a sizeable town, could not elect any MPs. 

A picture of old sarum by John Constable

Such boroughs became known as rotten boroughs, and were open to corruption. Many of these boroughs were owned by aristocrats or landlords, and they could then give the parliamentary seats to their friends and family, or even become MPs themselves, if they were not titled. These boroughs were in due course part of the landowner’s inheritance, which meant that the corruption passed on. Alternatively they could sell the borough to someone else, either for money or another favour of some sort. (Anyone who has read or watched Winston Graham’s Poldark series will be familiar with this!)

Other boroughs were known as pocket boroughs. As with rotten boroughs, they were constituencies that had a vastly diminished population from when they were initially incorporated, but in this case could be effectively controlled by an individual who owned a large number of what were called ‘burgage tenements’ – houses whose occupants were entitled to vote. A wealthy man would buy up these qualified houses, then put in his own tenants, who would be obliged to vote for the candidate of their landlord’s choice, or suffer the consequences. Voting was not secret until the Ballot Act of 1872, so if a tenant didn’t vote as his landlord wished it would be immediately known. Some wealthy people would own a number of these pocket boroughs. The Duke of Newcastle, who readers of my books will be acquainted with, was said to have seven pocket boroughs. 

Peers who owned pocket or rotten boroughs ensured a double influence in government – as well as effectively owning MPs in the House of Commons, their titled ensured them a seat in the House of Lords as well!

In this way the wealthy and landed people ensured that their own interests were served in Parliament. A huge number of parliamentary seats fell into these categories – in 1831, of 406 elected MPs, 152 were elected by fewer than 100 voters, and 88 by fewer than 50.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806). Oil on canvas. 114.5 x 144.5 cm. Not before 1806.

By the end of the eighteenth century objections were growing regarding these corrupt boroughs, and many political societies campaigned for something to be done about them. They wanted a fairer distribution of seats that would mean MPs were elected by a more equal number of voters. In answer to this Pitt the Younger, who had no interest in losing a system which had helped to bring him to power, passed a law making it illegal for these societies to meet or to publish information. It was indeed a case of the wealthy and influential seeking to retain control against growing opposition. Arguments given to keep these clearly unfair boroughs included that the country had been prosperous during them and so they must cause no harm, that they allowed promising but unproven young men to enter parliament, where they would go on to great things. The Tory politician Spencer Perceval (who holds the distinction of being the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated) argued that if pocket boroughs were disenfranchised, the whole system would collapse. As my American readers will know, British colonists in America, the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent had no representation in the Westminster parliament, and it was also argued that rotten borough gave an opportunity for colonial interest groups to purchase MPs who would represent their interests in the Commons.

Painting of Spencer Perceval.

Suppression and such specious reasons worked for a time, but in the next century calls for reform became louder and more strident. In the end the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 brought the issue of reform to the fore, and in 1832 the Reform Act was passed, which disenfranchised 57 rotten boroughs (mainly in the south and west of England), redistributing parliamentary representation to major population centres, many of which were in the north.

I’m not the only author to mention pocket or rotten boroughs in my work – other writers to do so include Anthony Trollope, William Thackeray, and Charles Dickens, whilst in more modern times, the BBC comedy Blackadder has Baldrick being elected as member of the fictional borough of Dunny-on-the-Wold, to support the Prince Regent. Blackadder himself is the only voter in the district.

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2 comments

  1. Fascinating post. I love reading well-researched historical novels, and the 18th century is a particular favorite of mine (by the Regency, you can see the Victorian age rearing its head).
    My particular bête noire is that writers so often get the food wrong: there were no tea parties before the mid-19th century, few of the pastries and cakes we associate with tea parties, and almost nothing flavored with chocolate.