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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.
Old Sarum in Wiltshire (pictured) was the most notorious pocket borough. It was a 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. In 1802 the Pitt family sold it for £60,000, even though the land and manorial rights were worth only £700 a year (which would be equivalent to a capital sum of around £20,000 at most).
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.
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.
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.
By the early 19th century moves were made towards reform, with eventual success when the Reform Act 1832 disenfranchised 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.
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 borough of Old Sarum retained its right to elect two MPs.
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. Commonly also they 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.
|Newtown||Isle of Wight||14||23|
|Dunwich||Suffolk||44||32||Most of this formerly prosperous town had fallen into the sea|
|Plympton Erle||Devon||182||40||One seat was controlled from the mid-17th century to 1832 by the Treby family of Plympton House|
|Callington||Cornwall||225||42||Controlled by the Rolle family of Heanton Satchville and Stevenstone in Devon|
|Trim||County Meath||Parliament of Ireland|
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.
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.: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.
Significantly diminished by the Reform Act of 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.: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.
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.
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. 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.
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 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."
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).
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.