02 April 2017

The rotten boroughs

Antonia Fraser, in her book on the Great Reform Bill of 1832, outlines the marked unfairness of the British electoral system of the time, in which new industrial towns were largely unrepresented, representatives in the Commons could be elected by next to no-one, and seats could and did change hands for large sums of money:

[T]here were the infamous 'rotten boroughs' such as Old Sarum, where two MPs represented - quite literally - a lump of stone and a green field. No wonder visitors flocked to see this miraculous site! John Constable was sufficiently fascinated by this wild landscape which had once been a medieval city to commemorate it - Sir Thomas Lawrence admired the result and told him he should dedicate it to the House of Commons. Gatton in Surrey was only slightly less miraculous: here there were six houses in the borough, and 135 inhabitants in the parish - 'those celebrated and opulent and populous Towns', as the painter Haydon sarcastically called them. This particular borough of Gatton was sold several times, the price in the summer of 1830 said to be £180,000 (approximately £18 million in today's money). There was no miracle where Dunwich in Suffolk was concerned: it had in effect fallen into the sea, but it still returned two Members of Parliament. Places with long and ancient history frequently had a disproportionate amount of seats to their inhabitants, witness Cornwall, where there were a total of forty-four Members for a thinly scattered population. In general, there was a pronounced bias towards the south over the north of England.

- Antonia Fraser, Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832, London, 2013, p.19.
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