Rotten and pocket boroughs

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Old Sarum in Wiltshire, an uninhabited hill which until 1832 elected two Members of Parliament, the most notorious pocket borough. It was a possession of the Pitt family from the mid-17th century to 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 £700 a year at most. Painting by John Constable, 1829

A rotten or pocket borough, more formally known as a nomination borough or proprietarial borough, was a parliamentary borough or constituency in England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom in existence prior to 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.


A parliamentary borough was a town which possessed a royal charter granting it incorporation and giving it the right to send two of its elected burgesses as members of Parliament to the House of Commons. It was not unusual for such a borough to change its boundaries as the town developed or contracted over time, in accordance for example with the state of its trade and industry, so that eventually the boundaries of the parliamentary borough and 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 by a single wealthy patron. These were given by 19th-century proponents of reform the derogatory appellation "Rotten Boroughs" or "Pocket Boroughs", more formally "Nomination Boroughs", because their democratic processes were rotten and their parliamentary member was effectively nominated by the whim of the patron, thus "in his pocket"; the actual votes of the electors were a mere formality, all or a majority being willing to vote as the patron instructed them. As voting was by show of hands in a single polling station at a single time, none dared to vote contrary to the instructions of their patron or contrary to what had been contracted by way of bribes received. Frequently such a borough might only put forward one candidate in an uncontested election, being nominated by the mayor and corporation at the behest of the patron.

Thus a Member of Parliament for one borough which had contracted over time due to decrease in local trade might represent only a few constituents, whilst at the same time a newly expanded borough or unincorporated settlement, which had experienced a rapid increase in population due to increased trade and industry, might be entirely unrepresented, or inadequately represented. For example, the town of Manchester, which expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution from a small settlement into a large city, prior to 1832 was merely part of the larger county constituency of Lancashire and did not elect its own MPs to represent its own particular and special interests.

Each of these ancient boroughs elected two members to the House of Commons. By the time of the 1831 general election, out of 406 elected members, 152 were chosen by fewer than one hundred voters each, and 88 by fewer than fifty voters.[1] By the early 19th century moves were made towards reform and this political movement was eventually successful, culminating in the Reform Act 1832, which disfranchised the rotten boroughs and redistributed representation in Parliament to new major population centres.

The Ballot Act of 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.

Rotten boroughs

Rotten boroughs were one of the curiosities of the British electoral system. Rotten boroughs were a product of a system that did not want change, where fathers passed on constituencies (and the power of MPs that went with them) to their sons as if they were personal property. In many such boroughs the very few electors could not vote for whom they truly wanted due to the lack of a secret ballot or simply due to the lack of a candidate desirable to their political philosophy. The term rotten borough came into use in the 18th century, and was used to mean a parliamentary borough with a tiny electorate, so small that voters were susceptible to control in a variety of ways. The word "rotten" had the connotation of corruption as well as that of long-term decline.

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 "city" reliant on the wealth expended by its own Sarum Cathedral within its city precincts, but it was abandoned when the present Salisbury Cathedral (also called "New Sarum") was founded nearby on a new site, 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 members of parliament.

Many such rotten boroughs were controlled by landowners who gave the seats in parliament to their politically like-minded friends or relations, or even went to parliament themselves. Commonly 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.

Examples of rotten boroughs include the following:

Before being awarded a peerage, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, served in the Irish House of Commons as a Member for the rotten borough of Trim in County Meath.

Pocket boroughs

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[citation needed]

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. A Boundary Commission was set up by subsequent Acts of Parliament to maintain this principle as population movements continued.[citation needed]

Many famous parliamentarians represented pocket boroughs.[citation needed]


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.[4] 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. [5] However, the legislative reign of terror of William Pitt caused these societies to disband by enacting legislature that made it illegal for these societies to meet or publish information. [6]

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.

Other counties

Contemporary defences

Rotten boroughs were defended by the successive Tory governments of 1807-1830 – a substantial number of Tory constituencies lay in rotten and pocket boroughs. During this period they came under criticism from prominent figures such as Tom Paine and William Cobbett.[7]

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.[8] Members of Parliament (MPs), who were generally in favour of the boroughs, claimed they should be kept as Britain had undergone periods of prosperity under the system.

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 virtual representation in parliament for colonial interest groups.[9]

Politicians such as Spencer Perceval asked the nation to look at the system as a whole, saying that if rotten boroughs were discarded, the whole system was liable to collapse.[10]

Modern usage

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.

In his book The Age of Consent, George Monbiot compared small island states with one vote in the U.N. General Assembly to "rotten boroughs".

The term rotten borough is sometimes used as a pejorative epithet for electorates used to gain political leverage. In Hong Kong, 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.[11]


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 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.

In Chapter 7 of the novel Vanity Fair, author William Makepeace Thackeray introduces the fictitious borough of "Queen's Crawley," so named in honor of a stopover in the small Hampshire town of Crawley by Queen Elizabeth I, who being 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."

In Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy opera, HMS Pinafore, Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, boasts that 'I grew so rich that I was sent/by a Pocket Borough into Parliament'

In Charles Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865), Mr. Veneering is elected MP to a borough called "Pocket-Breaches".

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).[12]

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.


  • "[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.

See also


  1. W. Carpenter, The people's book; comprising their chartered rights and practical wrongs, p. 406
  2. Lewis Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III
  3. Pearce, Robert and Stearn, Roger (2000). Access to History, Government and Reform: Britain 1815-1918 (Second Edition), page 14. Hodder & Stoughton.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Iain Hampsher-Monk. "Civic Humanism and Parliamentary Reform: The Case of the Society of the Friends of the People." (Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 70-89). Journal of British Studies, 1979. Retrieved from [1]. 24 November 2015. (subscription required)
  5. "The State of the Representation of England and Wales". 9 February 1793. [2]
  6. Clive Emsley. "Repression, 'Terror' and the Rule of Law in England During the Decade of the French Revolution." (Vol. 100, No. 397, pp. 801-825). Oxford University Press, 1985.Retrieved from [3] 30 November 2015. (subscription required)
  7. Pearce, Robert and Stearn, Roger (2000). Access to History, Government and Reform: Britain 1815-1918 (Second Edition). Hodder & Stoughton.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Pearce, Robert and Stearn, Roger (2000). Access to History, Government and Reform: Britain 1815-1918 (Second Edition), page 22. Hodder & Stoughton.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Taylor, M (2003). "Empire and Parliamentary Reform: The 1832 Reform Act Revisited." In Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain 1780-1850, edited by A. Burns and J. Innes, 295-312. Cambridge University Press.
  10. Evans, Eric J. (1990). Liberal Democracies, page 104. Joint Matriculation Board.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Murray, J. "Banksy's brew not so bewitching this time round", 3 News, 11 November 2011. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  12. "Black Adder - Episode Guide: Dish and Dishonesty". BBC. Retrieved 2010-05-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Spielvogel, Western Civilization — Volume II: Since 1500 (2003) p. 493
  • Lewis Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, 1929.