The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights

The history of British democracy (or semi-democracy, as you’ll see) is long and convoluted, so let’s hack off a small piece to talk about here: the rotten borough. This was an electoral district that had lost most of its population but still sent an MP–that’s a Member of Parliament–to the House of Commons. Or sometimes more than one MP. 

Just before the picture changed with the Reform Act of 1832, 140 MPs represented (if that’s the right word) rotten boroughs. That’s 140 out of 658 Members of Parliament. Fifty of those boroughs had fewer than fifty voters. 

Meanwhile, major industrial cities like Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester had no MPs at all.  What was a rotten borough like? Gatton, in Surry, had twenty voters when the monarchy was restored (that was in 1660, and yes, I had to look it up) and a hundred years later it was down to two. Old Sarum had one farm house, some fields, and a lot of sheep. Both sent MPs to parliament. The former port of Dunwich had crumbled into the sea and only 32 people were left above the water line. It didn’t just send one MP to parliament but two.

Irrelevant photo: A murmuration of starlings (along with some sheep) on Bodmin Moor. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

So who got to vote?

You might want to notice that those examples don’t use parallel categories. For Dunwich, we have the number of residents. For Gatton, though, we have the number of voters. For Old Sarum, we have the number of houses and a vague gesture in the direction of the sheep. What’s worse, I haven’t necessarily given you dates. 

But to hell with it, it gives you enough to work with–as much (if your mind’s at all like mine) as you’ll remember anyway.  

The shifting categories point to a central issue, though: Not many people could vote, so residents form a very different category from voters. Women? Don’t be silly. Who’d trust ‘em with anything as serious as the vote. Men? Well, only the ones who mattered, which is another of saying men of property. How much property varied from place to place, but the requirements everywhere involved (a) being male and (b) owning property.

During the Civil War (that’s from 1642 to 1651), when the Levellers, serving as soldiers in the Parliamentary Army, argued for (nearly) universal male suffrage, their officers defended limiting the vote on the grounds that only people who had a stake in society could be trusted to take part in politics. And by having a stake, they meant owning some part of it.

The Levellers were naive enough to think that risking their lives for a new form of government might prove they had a stake in their country’s political future. They were wrong, and it was centuries before their demands were met. The conviction that owning property qualified a man to vote dominated political thought until the next paragraph, where suddenly it’s 1780.


It’s 1780 and we shift to the present tense

Look! It’s 1780. What a surprise. In England and Wales, about 214,000 people have the right to vote. That’s less than 3% of the total population. In Scotland the electorate’s even smaller. 

Now that we’ve pegged those numbers into the ground we can leave 1780 and toss a second element into the discussion of voting: It’s not done by secret ballot. That makes it easy for an ambitious politician–or a would-be politician–to buy votes. Because the electorate’s small, he doesn’t have to buy that many and because voting is public he can see whether the people whose votes he bought are honest enough to stay bought.

In some constituencies, however, this won’t work. Not because the electorate’s above that sort of thing but because whoever holds the power locally controls the process, selecting the MP and tells his people to vote for him. Get his approval and you’re as good as elected. Don’t get it and your chances are thin.

Did you notice how gracefully we slid into the present tense there? It’s going to get in the way eventually, though, so we’ll slip back into the past tense, where we belong. 

I know. When I write anything sane, I comb through and straighten out that sort of thing. Blogs make no commitment to sanity, however, and I enjoy the freedom to screw up so openly.

Buying off the electorate was done as openly as I just shifted tenses. You can even find a few statistics on who spent how much in what year buying which constituency. Approaching a powerful lord if you wanted a seat in parliament was done just as openly. That was democracy in action.


That pesky middle class

Pressure to change the system was growing, though. The middle class was getting larger and richer. 

And here I have to interrupt myself: I just hate it when I have to talk about the middle class. It means I have to define it, and it’s a baggy old piece of clothing. It’s easy enough to say that the middle class was made up of people who weren’t poor but weren’t aristocrats, but that’s a hell of a range and tells you less than it seems to. It includes everyone from the most marginal professional or shopkeeper to the richest industrialist. Not only did their incomes range all over the place, so did their interests.

We could probably pick that definition to pieces but I’m going to move on before we get a chance.

A middle class person who was rich enough could vote, but because of the way constituencies were drawn that didn’t mean they’d be in a position to influence an MP. The richest members of the middle class wanted political power that would match their economic power. 

At this point, a couple of little things happened, like the French and American revolutions, and they spoke to people lower down on the economic food chain. Things that had once looked unchangeable had been shaken to pieces. By the end of the eighteenth century, corresponding societies that pushed for universal manhood suffrage had come into existence.


Reform vs. revolution

In 1819, a public meeting calling for universal manhood suffrage was attacked and eleven people were killed. It’s known as the Peterloo Massacre. I keep promising to write about it and eventually I will. For the moment, take it as a visible sign that the demand for change was flowing outside the established political channels.

People in power gradually began to acknowledge the need for reform, and the rotten boroughs were high on the list of changes that needed to be made. But that was some people in power, not all of them.

By way of an example, take Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and in 1830 the Tory prime minister. In an 1831 letter, he defended the rotten borough system, writing, “I confess that I see in thirty members for rotten boroughs, thirty men, I don’t care of what party, who would preserve the state of property as it is; who would maintain by their votes the Church of England, its possessions, its churches and universities. I don’t think that we could spare thirty or forty of these representatives, or with advantage exchange them for thirty or forty members elected for the great towns by any new system.”

That does have the virtue of honesty.

But in 1830 the Tories lost power and a Whig government, headed by Earl Grey, supported reform, which it counted on “to prevent the necessity of revolution.” Toward that end, the House of Commons passed a reform bill in 1831 but it was defeated in Tory-dominated Hour of Lords. 

In response, all hell broke loose, taking the form of riots and “serious disturbances.” You know what serious disturbances are. They’re sub-riots. They’re earnest young riots-in-training. They broke out in London, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol, and other places that we’ll skip over. In Bristol, people set fire to public buildings and houses, doing more than £300,000 worth of damage, which was a hell of a lot more money then than it is now. Twelve people died, 102 were arrested, and 31 sentenced to death.

France had just had another revolution–the 1830 one, which tossed out a Charles and installed a Louis-Philippe. It was enough to make a British king nervous, and William IV agreed to pack the House of Lords with some Whigs so that when another Reform Bill passed the Commons, it could go on to pass the Lords, becoming the Reform Act of 1832. 

As far as I understand British politics, packing the House of Commons is a no-no, or at least getting caught at it is. Packing the House of Lords, though? That’s business as usual.


The Reform Act

Fifty-six rotten boroughs disappeared in the Reform Act of 1832 and sixty-seven new constituencies were created, although constituencies still weren’t of remotely even sizes. 

In the countryside the franchise was extended to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers. In towns, men who paid a yearly rent of £10 or more could vote, along with some lodgers, even if they didn’t own the property. If they could afford to rent someplace expensive enough, they could be trusted to vote responsibly.

That left out working class men. In fact, it left out six men out of every seven. 

And for the first time, women were specifically excluded from the franchise. Before that, women’s exclusion was a matter of custom, not law, and in a few rare instances women had voted.

Yeah, progress. It’s a wonderful thing. 

66 thoughts on “The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by the rotten boroughs. It goes a long way toward explaining why US Founding Persons With a Y Chromosome thought presidential selection via an electoral college which doesn’t reflect actual voting majorities is a fine idea.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’d never thought to make that connection. It’s a reminder, I guess, that the idea of elected government was in its experimental stage. The Founding Persons with a Y Chromosome also were very much afraid of “the mob,” and wanted to build in a circuit breaker. It was–I’m told–a deliberate form of putting the brakes on democracy in case it got out of hand.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I recently read Anthony Trollope’s account of his tour of North America in the 1860s, and since the issue of the franchise was current in Britain, he looked into how it was handled everywhere he visited. I’d never known that there were similar laws in the US, but apparently there were several states where you needed a certain amount of property to vote (or even, as you got further south, a certain number of slaves).

        And here in Canada, Prince Edward Island’s provincial parliament had double representation for landowners as late as 1963!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I didn’t know either of those things. I did know that the various US states gave women the vote at different times. And of course, Black people voting is still very much an issue in the US, with some states carefully weeding out as many Black voters as they can, although always citing more respectable reasons for it. Thanks for your contribution to the conversation.


    • If we’d tuned in earlier, I don’t think the richer end of the middle class would have been voting. I should, at some point, look in on the beginnings of Parliament, when I think it consisted of England’s barons and no one else. It is very much about power. Always.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. We still have rotten boroughs…..since the main political parties started imposing candidates approved of by the leadership on local constituency parties instead of allowing them to choose their own people…so you still have to kowtow to a bigwig if you want to be an M.P.
    It explains the low calibre of the current House of Commons….and probably its venality.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And that doesn’t get into what in the US would be called gerrymandering, carving up constituencies to give the dominant party an advantage. Apparently I’ll be living in Devonwall–a constituency carved out of part of Devon and part of Cornwall, for the convenience of the Tories. With everything else that’s going on, that’s disappeared from the papers but I think it’s still on the agenda.


          • I was wondering how well something like an independent electoral commission would work and found myself wondering what sort of check there’d be on it if it all went wrong. Watching the meltdown of the U.S. of we’ve-lost-it A. has left some mental scars.

            Liked by 1 person

            • As far as I know (a relatively short distance), we haven’t had an electoral commission scandal but I see yours in the UK has become a bit of a rotten borough itself. That’s what happens when you give people control over other people’s money. ;-)

              Liked by 1 person

              • The money thing–any government has to spend tax money. Some have their eye on governing a country, others on enriching themselves and their friends. The world seems to be rich in the second sort of politician lately.

                Liked by 1 person

              • No…the problem is people don’t or won’t see that you do not need a system….our liaisons with each othr are so broken we have forgotten how to have confidence in ourselves or our neighbours, to take back power into our own hands.

                Liked by 1 person

              • First, I’d argue that any set of relationships, even among a small group of people, becomes a system. It may be a good one, but it’s still a system. And with time, even a good one can turn into a bad fit, either because it becomes corrupted or because the situation’s changed but it hasn’t.

                Second, much as I value the informal support and help that neighbors and friends and families give each other, I don’t think they’re up to the task of running the world we live in. For one thing, there are a hell of a lot of us on this planet. For another, we’re starting from a position of highly unequal wealth and power, reinforced by a long-ingrained set of beliefs.


  3. Really interesting post. I always find it difficult to accept that almost all of Greater Manchester at the time of the Peterloo Massacre had no Member of Parliament – considering that the cities of Manchester and Salford alone had a combined population of 150,000. The Peterloo incident is a fascinating piece of social and political history and I look forward to your post on that. I do refer in my post ‘A Good Day at Tandle Hill’ to this being the meeting place of radicals for practising marching and drilling in the period leading up to the Peterloo massacre and as a place that has benefitted from the struggle for democracy (it is now a wonderful Country Park).

    Liked by 1 person

    • In England, I don’t think the sheep were counted. In fact, I don’t know that anyone was counted at that point. I can’t remember when they first did a census. They didn’t have to justify their cockeyed arrangements, so why bother counting? The electoral college. Hmm. I don’t think they count the sheep either, but you never know. After a year like this one, I hesitate to make any unequivocal statements.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Isn’t paying for votes great! Of course, we don’t do that these days. Saying, “Vote for me and Ill give you healthcare, welfare, cellphones” isn’t buying votes, if it were then it would be illegal. See, you can’t pay individuals, but buying an entire group is different…cheaper, when you’re going to spend their money for the votes instead of your own. Progress is wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I make no arguments for excluding women from government, property, or anything else, and anecdotally the first women who push their way into a field that’s previously been all male tend to be better at it than the men because they have to be, and because anyone who’s not is filtered out by how hard it is to get there. But I’ve known women in leadership positions who are disastrous in a variety of ways. They didn’t leave me with the belief that women are inherently better leaders than men. Or fairer. Or purer. I’d love to think we were, but it doesn’t match my admittedly small and unscientific survey.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I have read that John Adams did not trust the common folk to make the best decisions, so he wrote the elector college into the constitution as he believed the property elite class would dedicate themselves to good government. Many commentators believe he was very disappointed with his constitutional creation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It took a long time after the 1832 Reform Act to get anywhere close to democracy as we understand it now, as the Chartists would have told you in the 1840s. The biggest leaps came when the Tories realised there were working-class Tories, and brought in an expansion of voting rights to “dish the Whigs”; but even then it took until 1928 for the last vestiges of property qualification to disappear. Alongside that, other aspects of electioneering took a long time to reform: the rules against “treating” for instance (one of the best things about being a candidate is that between nomination and polling day you mustn’t buy anyone else a drink – they have to buy them for you – but compare and contrast with Dickens’s Eatanswill election in Pickwick Papers!), and the secret ballot didn’t come in till 1872.

    To my surprise the Boundary Commissions didn’t have a permanent establishment in law till 1944 (I don’t know how they did it before then, my guess is it was all a bit ad hoc). This time round, the Commission were given an impossible job: cutting the overall number of constituencies AND making sure they were within a very tight margin of variation in numbers of electors (no more than 5% of the average) AND reflecting local ideas of their natural community AND staying within local authority boundaries. Something had to give, and that was the contiguity with local government boundaries. I don’t believe it was a conscious and deliberate plan to favour the Tories – in the past, there were times the boundaries gave some inbuilt advantage to Labour. Of course, the local parties dress up what they think might favour them in all the arguments about “natural communities” and where people shop and commute to work, and so on; but demography and shifts of opinion might confound them all (I haven’t looked into this, but it’s possible that last December’s shift to the Tories in “red wall” seats might now be counter-acted by demographic change reducing the numbers of constituencies in those parts of the country).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t known that about not buying people drinks. It’s–I was about to say priceless, but since there actually is a price on it a person might save enough to make up for the fee you have to pay to register as a candidate. I’m assuming here that the person in question doesn’t get enough votes to get it back. Is it worth it? Hmm. Depends how much time you spend down at the pub.

      I confess, I didn’t take the time to look into how the boundary commission was set up. I do remember reading the Tories’ justification for reducing the number of constituencies (it would cost less) even as they expanded the House of Lords and I made the rash assumption that they saw the possibility of political gain there. How cynical of me.


  7. Pingback: The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights – Flipcart

  8. Pingback: The origins of England’s parliament | Notes from the U.K.

  9. Pingback: The Peterloo Massacre, or how the British got the vote | Notes from the U.K.

  10. Pingback: Britain’s Corn Laws: that bit of history you slept through turns out to be fascinating | Notes from the U.K.

Talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.