A rotten borough was a parliamentary constituencies that had declined in size but still had the right to elect members of the House of Commons. Plympton Earle had been a prosperous market town in the Middle Ages but by the 19th century it had declined to the level of a country village. Newtown on the Isle of Wight had been a market town but by the time of the 1832 Reform Act it had been reduced to a village of 14 houses.
Most of these constituencies were under the control of one man, the patron. Rotten boroughs had very few voters. For example, Dunwich in Suffolk, as a result of coastal erosion, had almost fallen into the sea and by 1831 only had thirty-two people had the vote. Old Sarum, in Wiltshire, only had three houses and a population of fifteen people. With just a few individuals with the vote and no secret ballot, it was easy for candidates to buy their way to victory.
|Bramber||Duke of Rutland|
|East Looe||John Buller|
|Gatton||Sir Mark Wood|
|Old Sarum||Earl of Caledon|
|Newtown||Sir Fitzwilliam Barrington|
|Plympton Earle||Earl of Mount Edgcumbe|
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?
By long-established custom the single vote of a resident elector was rewarded with a donation of two guineas and the expenses of a freeman's journey from London averaged £10 a piece. The letter of the law was not broken, because the money was not paid until the last day on which election petitions could be presented.