Rotten and pocket boroughs

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Old Sarum in Wiltshire, an uninhabited hill which until 1832 elected two Members of Parliament. Painting by John Constable, 1829 Ac.oldsarum.jpg
Old Sarum in Wiltshire, an uninhabited hill which until 1832 elected two Members of Parliament. Painting by John Constable, 1829

A rotten or pocket borough, also known as a nomination borough or proprietorial borough, was a parliamentary borough or constituency in England, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom before the Reform Act 1832, which had a very small electorate and could be used by a patron to gain unrepresentative influence within the unreformed House of Commons. The same terms were used for similar boroughs represented in the 18th-century Parliament of Ireland.

An electoral district, also known as an election district, legislative district, voting district, constituency, riding, ward, division, (election) precinct, electoral area, circumscription, or electorate, is a territorial subdivision for electing members to a legislative body. Generally, only voters (constituents) who reside within the district are permitted to vote in an election held there. From a single district, a single member or multiple members might be chosen. Members might be chosen by a first-past-the-post system or a proportional representative system, or another voting method entirely. Members might be chosen through a direct election under universal suffrage, an indirect election, or another form of suffrage.

Kingdom of England Historic sovereign kingdom on the British Isles (927–1649; 1660–1707)

The Kingdom of England was a sovereign state on the island of Great Britain from 927, when it emerged from various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until 1707, when it united with Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Kingdom of Great Britain Constitutional monarchy in Western Europe between 1707 and 1801

The Kingdom of Great Britain, officially called Great Britain, was a sovereign state in western Europe from 1 May 1707 to 1 January 1801. The state came into being following the Treaty of Union in 1706, ratified by the Acts of Union 1707, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland to form a single kingdom encompassing the whole island of Great Britain and its outlying islands, with the exception of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The unitary state was governed by a single parliament and government that was based in Westminster. The former kingdoms had been in personal union since James VI of Scotland became King of England and King of Ireland in 1603 following the death of Elizabeth I, bringing about the "Union of the Crowns". Since its inception the kingdom was in legislative and personal union with Ireland and after the accession of George I to the throne of Great Britain in 1714, the kingdom was in a personal union with the Electorate of Hanover.



A parliamentary borough was a town or former town which was (had been) incorporated under a royal charter, giving it the right to send two elected burgesses as Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons. It was not unusual for the physical boundary of the settlement to change as the town developed or contracted over time, for example due to changes in its trade and industry, so that the boundaries of the parliamentary borough and of the physical settlement were no longer the same.

Royal charter Document issued by a monarch, granting a right or power to an individual or organisation

A royal charter is a formal grant issued by a monarch under royal prerogative as letters patent. Historically, they have been used to promulgate public laws, the most famous example being the British Magna Carta of 1215, but since the 14th century have only been used in place of private acts to grant a right or power to an individual or a body corporate. They were, and are still, used to establish significant organisations such as boroughs, universities and learned societies.

Burgess originally meant a freeman of a borough or burgh (Scotland). It later came to mean an elected or unelected official of a municipality, or the representative of a borough in the English House of Commons.

For centuries, constituencies electing members to the House of Commons did not change to reflect population shifts, and in some places the number of electors became so few that they could be bribed or otherwise influenced by a single wealthy patron. In the early 19th century, reformists scornfully called these boroughs "rotten boroughs" or "pocket boroughs", or more formally "nomination boroughs", because their democratic processes were rotten and their MP(s) were elected by the whim of the patron, thus "in his pocket"; the actual votes of the electors were a mere formality; all or most of them voted as the patron instructed them, with or without bribery. As voting was by show of hands at a single polling station at a single time, none dared to vote contrary to the instructions of the patron. Often only one candidate would be nominated (or two for a two-seat constituency), so that the election was uncontested.

Thus an MP might represent only a few constituents, while at the same time many new towns, which had grown due to increased trade and industry, were entirely unrepresented, or inadequately represented. For example, before 1832 the town of Manchester, which expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution from a small settlement into a large city, was merely part of the larger county constituency of Lancashire and did not elect its own MPs.

Manchester was a Parliamentary borough constituency in the county of Lancashire which was represented in the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Its territory consisted of the city of Manchester.

Industrial Revolution Transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States, in the 18th-19th centuries

The Industrial Revolution, now also known as the First Industrial Revolution, was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power and water power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the mechanized factory system. The Industrial Revolution also led to an unprecedented rise in the rate of population growth.

Lancashire was a county constituency of the House of Commons of the Parliament of England from 1290, then of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800, and of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1832. It was represented by two Members of Parliament, traditionally known as Knights of the Shire until 1832.

Many of these ancient boroughs elected two MPs. By the time of the 1831 general election, out of 406 elected members, 152 were chosen by fewer than 100 voters each, and 88 by fewer than fifty voters. [1]

1831 United Kingdom general election

The 1831 United Kingdom general election saw a landslide win by supporters of electoral reform, which was the major election issue. As a result, it was the last unreformed election, as the Parliament which resulted ensured the passage of the Reform Act 1832. Polling was held from 28 April to 1 June 1831. The Whigs won a majority of 136 over the Tories, which was as near to a landslide as the unreformed electoral system could deliver. As the Government obtained a dissolution of Parliament once the new electoral system had been enacted, the resulting Parliament was a short one and there was another election the following year. The election was the first since 1715 to see a victory by a party previously in minority.

By the early 19th century moves were made towards reform, with eventual success when the Reform Act 1832 abolished the rotten boroughs and redistributed representation in Parliament to new major population centres. The Ballot Act 1872 introduced the secret ballot, which greatly hindered patrons from controlling elections by preventing them from knowing how an elector had voted. At the same time, the practice of paying or entertaining voters ("treating") was outlawed, and election expenses fell dramatically.

Reform Act 1832 United Kingdom legislation

The Representation of the People Act 1832 was an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom that introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales. According to its preamble, the Act was designed to "take effectual Measures for correcting divers Abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament". Before the reform, most members nominally represented boroughs. The number of electors in a borough varied widely, from a dozen or so up to 12,000. Frequently the selection of MPs was effectively controlled by one powerful patron: for example Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, controlled eleven boroughs. Criteria for qualification for the franchise varied greatly among boroughs, from the requirement to own land, to merely living in a house with a hearth sufficient to boil a pot.

Ballot Act 1872 United Kingdom legislation

The Ballot Act 1872 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that introduced the requirement that parliamentary and local government elections in the United Kingdom be held by secret ballot.

Secret ballot voting style that makes each vote anonymous

The secret ballot, also known as Australian ballot, is a voting method in which a voter's choices in an election or a referendum are anonymous, forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation, blackmailing, and potential vote buying. The system is one means of achieving the goal of political privacy.

Rotten boroughs

The term rotten borough came into use in the 18th century; it meant a parliamentary borough with a tiny electorate, so small that voters were susceptible to control in a variety of ways, as it had declined in population and importance since its early days. The word "rotten" had the connotation of corruption as well as long-term decline. In such boroughs most or all of the few electors could not vote as they pleased, due to the lack of a secret ballot and their dependency on the "owner" of the borough. Only rarely were the views or personal character of a candidate taken into consideration, except by the minority of voters who were not beholden to a particular interest.

Typically, rotten boroughs had gained their representation in Parliament when they were more flourishing centres, but the borough's boundaries had never been updated, or else they had become depopulated or even deserted over the centuries. Some had once been important places or had played a major role in England's history, but had fallen into insignificance as for example industry moved away.

For example, in the 12th century Old Sarum had been a busy cathedral city, reliant on the wealth expended by its own Sarum Cathedral within its city precincts, but it was abandoned when the present Salisbury Cathedral was built on a new site nearby ("New Sarum"), which immediately attracted merchants and workers who built up a new town around it. Despite this dramatic loss of population, the constituency of Old Sarum retained its right to elect two MPs.

Old Sarum site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury in England

Old Sarum is the site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury in England. Located on a hill about 2 miles (3 km) north of modern Salisbury near the A345 road, the settlement appears in some of the earliest records in the country. It is an English Heritage property and is open to the public.

Old Sarum Cathedral Grade I listed cathedral in the United Kingdom

Old Sarum Cathedral was a Catholic and Norman cathedral at old Salisbury, now known as Old Sarum, between 1092 and 1220. Only its foundations remain, in the northwest quadrant of the circular outer bailey of the site, which is located near modern Salisbury, Wiltshire, in the United Kingdom. The cathedral was the seat of the bishops of Salisbury during the early Norman period and the original source of the Sarum Rite.

Salisbury Cathedral Church in Wiltshire, England

Salisbury Cathedral, formally known as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is an Anglican cathedral in Salisbury, England. The cathedral is regarded as one of the leading examples of Early English architecture: its main body was completed in 38 years, from 1220 to 1258.

Many such rotten boroughs were controlled by landowners and peers who might give the seats in Parliament to their like-minded friends or relations, or who went to Parliament themselves, if they were not already members of the House of Lords. They also commonly sold them for money or other favours; the peers who controlled such boroughs had a double influence in Parliament as they themselves held seats in the House of Lords. This patronage was based on property rights which could be inherited and passed on to heirs, or else sold, like any other form of property.

Examples of rotten boroughs
Old Sarum Wiltshire 37
Gatton Surrey 237
Newtown Isle of Wight 1423
East Looe Cornwall 16738
Dunwich Suffolk 4432Most of this formerly prosperous town had fallen into the sea
Plympton Erle Devon 18240One seat was controlled from the mid-17th century to 1832 by the Treby family of Plympton House
Bramber West Sussex 3520
Callington Cornwall 22542Controlled by the Rolle family of Heanton Satchville and Stevenstone in Devon
Trim County Meath Parliament of Ireland

Before being awarded a peerage, Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, served in the Irish House of Commons as a Member for the rotten borough of Trim. Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh served as a Member for the rotten borough of Plympton Erle.

Pocket boroughs

Pocket boroughs were boroughs which could effectively be controlled by a single person who owned at least half of the "burgage tenements", the occupants of which had the right to vote in the borough's parliamentary elections. A wealthy patron therefore had merely to buy up these specially qualified houses and install in them his own tenants, selected for their willingness to do their landlord's bidding, or given such precarious forms of tenure that they dared not displease him. As there was no secret ballot until 1872, the landowner could evict electors who did not vote for the man he wanted. A common expression referring to such a situation was that "Mr A had been elected on Lord B's interest".

There were also boroughs which were controlled not by a particular patron but rather by the Crown, specifically by the departments of state of the Treasury or Admiralty, and which thus returned the candidates nominated by the ministers in charge of those departments. [2]

Some rich individuals controlled several boroughs; for example, the Duke of Newcastle is said to have had seven boroughs "in his pocket". The representative of a pocket borough was often the man who owned the land, and for this reason they were also referred to as proprietarial boroughs. [3] :14

Pocket boroughs were seen by their 19th-century owners as a valuable method of ensuring the representation of the landed interest in the House of Commons.[ citation needed ]

Significantly diminished by the Reform Act 1832, pocket boroughs were finally abolished by the Reform Act of 1867. This considerably extended the borough franchise and established the principle that each parliamentary constituency should hold roughly the same number of electors. Boundary commissions were set up by subsequent Acts of Parliament to maintain this principle as population movements continued.[ citation needed ]


In the late 18th century, many political societies, like the London Corresponding Society and the Society of the Friends of the People, called for Parliamentary reform. [4] Specifically, they thought that the rotten borough system was unfair, and they called for a more equal distribution of representatives that reflected the population of Britain. [5] However, legislation enacted by Pitt the Younger caused these societies to disband by enacting legislation that made it illegal for these societies to meet or publish information. [6]

In the 19th century, there were moves towards Reform, which broadly meant ending the over-representation of boroughs with few electors. The issue which finally brought the Reform issue to a head was the arrival of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and the Reform movement had a major success in the Reform Act 1832, which disfranchised the 57 rotten boroughs listed below, most of them in the south and west of England, and redistributed representation in Parliament to new major population centres and to places with significant industries, which tended to be farther north.

Contemporary defences

A substantial number of Tory constituencies were rotten and pocket boroughs, and their right to representation was defended by the successive Tory governments in office between 1807 and 1830. During this period they came under criticism from prominent figures such as Tom Paine and William Cobbett. [3]

It was argued in defence of such boroughs that they provided stability and were also a means for promising young politicians to enter Parliament, with William Pitt the Elder being cited as a key example. [3] :22 Some MPs claimed that the boroughs should be retained, as Britain had enjoyed periods of prosperity while they were part of the constitution of Parliament.

Because British colonists in the West Indies and British North America, and those in the Indian subcontinent, had no representation of their own at Westminster, representatives of these groups often claimed that rotten boroughs provided opportunities for virtual representation in Parliament for colonial interest groups. [7]

The Tory politician Spencer Perceval asked the nation to look at the system as a whole, saying that if pocket boroughs were disenfranchised, the whole system was liable to collapse. [8]

Modern usage

The magazine Private Eye has a column entitled 'Rotten Boroughs', which lists stories of municipal wrongdoing; borough is used here in its usual sense of a local government district rather than a parliamentary constituency.

In his book The Age of Consent, George Monbiot compared small island states with one vote in the United Nations General Assembly to "rotten boroughs".

The term "rotten borough" is sometimes used to disparage electorates used to gain political leverage. In Hong Kong and Macau, functional constituencies (with small voter bases attached to special interests) are often referred to as "rotten boroughs" by long-time columnist Jake van der Kamp. In New Zealand, the term has been used to refer to electorates which – by dint of an agreement for a larger party – have been won by a minor party, enabling that party to gain more seats under the country's proportional representation system. [9] The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has also been referred to as a rotten borough owing to interference in elections by Tower Hamlets First members. [10]


In the satirical novel Melincourt, or Sir Oran Haut-Ton (1817) by Thomas Love Peacock, an orang-utan named Sir Oran Haut-ton is elected to parliament by the "ancient and honourable borough of Onevote". The election of Sir Oran forms part of the hero's plan to persuade civilisation to share his belief that orang-utans are a race of human beings who merely lack the power of speech. "The borough of Onevote stood in the middle of a heath, and consisted of a solitary farm, of which the land was so poor and intractable, that it would not have been worth the while of any human being to cultivate it, had not the Duke of Rottenburgh found it very well worth his while to pay his tenant for living there, to keep the honourable borough in existence." The single voter of the borough is Mr Christopher Corporate, who elects two MPs, each of whom "can only be considered as the representative of half of him".

In the parliamentary novels of Anthony Trollope rotten boroughs are a recurring theme. John Grey, Phineas Finn, and Lord Silverbridge are all elected by rotten boroughs.

In Chapter 7 of the novel Vanity Fair , author William Makepeace Thackeray introduces the fictitious borough of "Queen's Crawley", so named in honour of a stopover in the small Hampshire town of Crawley by Queen Elizabeth I, who, delighted by the quality of the local beer, instantly raised the small town of Crawley into a borough, giving it two members in Parliament. At the time of the story, in the early 19th century, the place had lost population, so that it was "come down to that condition of borough which used to be denominated rotten."

In Charles Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865), Mr. Veneering is elected MP to a borough called "Pocket-Breaches".

Rotten Borough was a controversial story published by Oliver Anderson under the pen name Julian Pine in 1937, republished in 1989.

In Diana Wynne Jones' 2003 book The Merlin Conspiracy , Old Sarum features as a character, with one line being "I'm a rotten borough, I am."

In the Aubrey–Maturin series of seafaring tales, the pocket borough of Milport (also known as Milford) is initially held by General Aubrey, the father of protagonist Jack Aubrey. In the twelfth novel in the series, The Letter of Marque, Jack's father dies and the seat is offered to Jack himself by his cousin Edward Norton, the "owner" of the borough. The borough has just seventeen electors, all of whom are tenants of Mr Norton.

In the first novel of George MacDonald Fraser's The Flashman Papers series, the eponymous antihero, Harry Flashman, mentions that his father, Sir Buckley Flashman, had been in Parliament, but "they did for him at Reform," implying that the elder Flashman's seat was in a rotten or pocket borough.

In the episode Dish and Dishonesty of the BBC television comedy Blackadder the Third , Edmund Blackadder attempts to bolster the support of the Prince Regent in Parliament by getting the incompetent Baldrick elected to the fictional rotten borough of "Dunny-on-the-Wold". This was easily accomplished with a result of 16,472 to nil, even though the constituency had only one voter (Blackadder himself). [11]

In the video game, Assassin's Creed III pocket and rotten boroughs are briefly mentioned in a database entry entitled "Pocket Boroughs", and Old Sarum is mentioned as one of the worst examples of a pocket borough. In the game, shortly before the Boston Massacre an NPC can be heard speaking to a group of people on the colonies lack of representation in Parliament and lists several rotten boroughs including Old Sarum.


Sir Joseph Porter: I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
Chorus: And he never thought of thinking for himself at all.
Sir Joseph: I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!
Fairy Queen: Let me see. I've a borough or two at my disposal. Would you like to go into Parliament?
'Could you not spend an afternoon at Milport, to meet the electors? There are not many of them, and those few are all my tenants, so it is no more than a formality; but there is a certain decency to be kept up. The writ will be issued very soon.'
When Colonel Dobbin quitted the service, which he did immediately after his marriage, he rented a pretty country place in Hampshire, not far from Queen's Crawley, where, after the passing of the Reform Bill, Sir Pitt and his family constantly resided now. All idea of a peerage was out of the question, the baronet's two seats in Parliament being lost. He was both out of pocket and out of spirits by that catastrophe, failed in his health, and prophesied the speedy ruin of the Empire.

See also

Related Research Articles

Old Sarum (UK Parliament constituency) Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom, 1801-1832

Old Sarum was from 1295 to 1832 a parliamentary constituency of England, of Great Britain, and finally of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It was a so-called rotten borough, with an extremely small electorate that was consequently vastly over-represented and could be used by a patron to gain undue influence. The constituency was on the site of what had been the original settlement of Salisbury, known as Old Sarum. The population had moved to New Sarum at the foot of the hill and at a confluence known as the cathedral city of Salisbury in the 14th century. The constituency was abolished under the Reform Act 1832.

Unreformed House of Commons

"Unreformed House of Commons" is a name given to the House of Commons of Great Britain and the House of Commons of the United Kingdom before it was reformed by the Reform Act 1832.

Newton (UK Parliament constituency) Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom, 1885-1983

Newton was a parliamentary borough in the county of Lancashire, in England. It was represented by two Members of Parliament in the House of Commons of the Parliament of England from 1559 to 1706 then of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800 and of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 until its abolition in 1832.

Amersham, often spelt as Agmondesham, was a constituency of the House of Commons of England until 1707, then in the House of Commons of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800 and finally in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1832. It was represented by two Members of Parliament (MPs), elected by the bloc-vote system.

The UK parliamentary constituency of Seaford was a Cinque Port constituency, similar to a parliamentary borough, in Seaford, East Sussex. A rotten borough, prone by size to undue influence by a patron, it was disenfranchised in the Reform Act of 1832. It was notable for having returned three Prime Ministers as its members – Henry Pelham, who represented the town from 1717 to 1722, William Pitt the Elder from 1747 to 1754 and George Canning in 1827 – though only Canning was Prime Minister while representing Seaford.

Wallingford was a constituency in the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Ilchester was a constituency of the House of Commons of the Parliament of England, then of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800 and of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1832. It was represented by two Members of Parliament until 1832. It was one of the most notoriously corrupt rotten boroughs.

Cirencester was a parliamentary constituency in Gloucestershire. From 1571 until 1885, it was a parliamentary borough, which returned two Member of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom until 1868, and one member between 1868 and 1885. In 1885 the borough was abolished but the name was transferred to the county constituency in which it stood; this constituency was abolished for the 1918 general election.

The Cornish rotten and pocket boroughs were one of the most striking anomalies of the Unreformed House of Commons in the Parliament of the United Kingdom before the Reform Act of 1832. Immediately before the Act Cornwall had twenty boroughs, each electing two members of parliament, as well as its two knights of the shire, a total of 42 members, far in excess of the number to which its wealth, population or other importance would seem to entitle it. Until 1821 there was yet another borough which sent two men to parliament, giving Cornwall only one fewer member in the House of Commons than the whole of Scotland.

Callington was a rotten borough in Cornwall which returned two Members of Parliament to the House of Commons in the English and later British Parliament from 1585 to 1832, when it was abolished by the Reform Act 1832.

Camelford was a rotten borough in Cornwall which returned two Members of Parliament to the House of Commons in the English and later British Parliament from 1552 to 1832, when it was abolished by the Great Reform Act.

Bere Alston or Beeralston was a parliamentary borough in Devon, which elected two Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons from 1584 until 1832, when the constituency was abolished by the Great Reform Act as a rotten borough.

Brackley was a parliamentary borough in Northamptonshire, which elected two Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons from 1547 until 1832, when the constituency was abolished by the Great Reform Act.

Dunwich was a parliamentary borough in Suffolk, one of the most notorious of all the rotten boroughs. It elected two Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons from 1298 until 1832, when the constituency was abolished by the Great Reform Act.

Stockbridge was a parliamentary borough in Hampshire, which elected two Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons from 1563 until 1832, when the borough was abolished by the Great Reform Act. It was one of the more egregiously rotten boroughs, and the first to have its status threatened for its corruption by a parliamentary bill to disfranchise it, though the proposal was defeated.

Winchelsea was a parliamentary constituency in Sussex, which elected two Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons from 1366 until 1832, when it was abolished by the Great Reform Act.

Penryn was a parliamentary borough in Cornwall, which elected two Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons of England from 1553 until 1707, to the House of Commons of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800, and finally to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom from 1801 to until 1832. Elections were held using the bloc vote system.

Shaftesbury was a parliamentary constituency in Dorset. It returned two Members of Parliament to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1295 until 1832 and one member until the constituency was abolished in 1885.

Hertfordshire was a county constituency covering the county of Hertfordshire in England. It returned two Knights of the Shire to the House of Commons of England until 1707, then to the House of Commons of Great Britain until 1800, and to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1800 until 1832. The Reform Act 1832 gave the county a third seat with effect from the 1832 general election.


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