The term "rotten" or "decayed" borough referred to a parliamentary borough or constituency in Great Britain and Ireland which had a very small population and was "controlled" and used by a patron to exercise undue and unrepresentative influence within parliament. Such boroughs existed for centuries, although the term rotten borough only came into usage in the 18th century. Typically rotten boroughs were boroughs which once had been flourishing cities with substantial population, but which had deteriorated, declined and become deserted over the centuries (see abandoned village).
The true rotten borough was a borough of an extraordinarily small electorate. A similar type of corrupt constituency was the pocket borough — a borough constituency with a small enough electorate to be under the effective control (or in the pocket) of a major landowner.
For many years, constituencies did not change to reflect population
shifts, and in some places the number of electors became so few that they could be bribed. A member of Parliament
for one borough
might represent only a few people (or even just one — the buyer), whereas cities which had become important, such as Manchester
, had no separate representation at all (eligible city residents were, however, able to vote in the corresponding county constituency; Lancashire
county for Manchester). For example, in 1831:
All of these boroughs could elect two MPs. At one point, out of 405 elected MPs, 293 were chosen by fewer than 500 voters each. Many such rotten boroughs were controlled by peers who 'gave' the seats to their sons, thus having influence in the House of Commons while also holding seats themselves in the House of Lords. Prior to being awarded a peerage, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, served as MP for the rotten borough of Trim in County Meath in the Irish House of Commons.
Rotten boroughs were sometimes places which had once played a major role in England's politics, but had fallen into insignificance. For example, Old Sarum had been a flourishing town in the twelfth century, but the majority of the population relocated to Salisbury when it was founded in a less exposed location nearby. The qualification "rotten" seemed to refer both to "corrupt" and "in decline for a very long time".
In the 19th century measures began to be taken against rotten boroughs, notably the Reform Act 1832
which disenfranchised the 56 rotten boroughs listed below and spread the representation across parliamentary seats aligning to population centres and significant industries.
- Aldborough, North Riding of Yorkshire
- Aldeburgh, Suffolk
- Amersham, Buckinghamshire
- Appleby, Westmorland
- Beeralston, Devon
- Bishop's Castle, Shropshire
- Bletchingley, Surrey
- Boroughbridge, North Riding of Yorkshire
- Bossiney, Cornwall
- Brackley, Northamptonshire
- Bramber, Sussex
- Callington, Cornwall
- Camelford, Cornwall
- Castle Rising, Norfolk
- Corfe Castle, Dorset
- Downton, Wiltshire
- Dunwich, Suffolk
- East Grinstead, Sussex
- East Looe, Cornwall
- Fowey, Cornwall
- Gatton, Surrey
- Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire
- Haslemere, Surrey
- Hedon, East Riding of Yorkshire
- Heytesbury, Wiltshire
- Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire
- Hindon, Wiltshire
- Ilchester, Somerset
Milborne Port, Somerset
Mitchell, or St Michael's, Cornwall
New Romney, Kent
Newtown, Isle of Wight
Old Sarum, Wiltshire
Plympton Erle, Devon
St Germans, Cornwall
St Mawes, Cornwall
West Looe, Cornwall
Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire
Yarmouth, Isle of Wight|
Pocket boroughs were finally abolished by the Reform Act of 1867. This considerably extended the borough franchise, and established the principle that each constituency should hold roughly the same number of electors. A Boundary Commission was set up by subsequent Acts of Parliament to maintain this principle as people moved about.
In addition the Ballot Act of 1872 introduced the secret ballot, which helped prevent patrons from controlling districts as they could no longer find out how a person had voted. At the same time the practice of paying or entertaining voters was outlawed, and election expenses fell dramatically.
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
by having the incompetent Baldrick
elected to the 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.
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 George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series, the eponymous antihero, Harry Flashman, mentions in the first novel 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 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 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.
Rotten Borough was a controversial story published by Oliver Anderson under the pen name Julian Pine in 1937 and then republished under the original title in 1989.
In some boroughs, while not rotten, parliamentary
representation was in the control of one or more 'patrons' by their power to either nominate or other machinations, such as burgage
. Patronage and bribery
flourished before the mid-nineteenth century, partly because there was no secret ballot
. In some cases, wealthy
individuals could "control" multiple boroughs — the Duke of Newcastle
is said to have had seven boroughs "in his pocket". The representative of a pocket borough was often the same person who owned the land, and for this reason they were also referred to as proprietorial boroughs
The pocket boroughs were seen (particularly by their owners) in the early 19th century as a valuable method of ensuring the representation of the landed interest in the House of Commons.
Among the few members in the House of Commons calling for parliamentary reform was Sir Francis Burdett.
Contemporary defences of the boroughs
It was argued during the time period that rotten boroughs provided stability and were a means for promising young politicians to enter parliament; with William Pitt the Elder
being cited as a key example. MPs who were generally in favour of the boroughs claimed that they should be kept, as Britain had undergone periods of prosperity under the system.
Politicians such as Spencer Perceval asked the nation to look at the system as a whole, saying that if rotten boroughs were discarded then the whole system was liable to collapse.
Because British colonists in the West Indies and on the Indian subcontinent were not represented at Westminster officially, these groups often claimed that rotten boroughs provided opportunities for colonial interest groups to be represented in parliament.
Rotten boroughs were defended by the successive Tory governments of 1807-1830, a substantial number of whose constituencies lay in rotten and pocket boroughs; but during this period they came under criticism from prominent figures such as Tom Paine and William Cobbett.
Today, "rotten borough" is sometimes used to refer to a parliamentary constituency in which one particular political party has such massive support that its candidate is effectively uncontested; a more neutral term is "safe seat
". Sometimes this term is used for an individual or family who have represented the same area for a long period of time, particularly when changing party allegiance whilst retaining the support of their constituency.
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 district rather than a parliamentary constituency.
- "[Borough representation is] the rotten part of the constitution." — William Pitt the Elder
- "The county of Yorkshire, which contains near a million souls, sends two county members; and so does the county of Rutland which contains not a hundredth part of that number. The town of Old Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upwards of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any. Is there any principle in these things?" Tom Paine, from Rights of Man, 1791
- From H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan:
- 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.'
- The Borough of Queen's Crawley in Thackeray's Vanity Fair is a rotten borough eliminated by the Reform Act of 1832:
- 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.
- Spielvogel, Western Civilization — Volume II: Since 1500 (2003) p.493