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.
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".
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
English conservatism in the nineteenth century.(Book Reviews)(The Quarrel of Macaulay and Croker: Politics and History in the Age of Reform)(Book Review)
Sep 22, 2003; The Quarrel of Macaulay and Croker: Politics and History in the Age of Reform, by William Thomas, New York and Oxford: Oxford...