By the 18th century it is estimated that in England and Wales about one in eight men could vote, the figure being lower in Scotland and Ireland. The right to vote depended very much on one's locality because there was no uniform franchise. In the counties, all freeholders (those people whose property had a rateable value of more than 40 shillings a year, possessed the franchise. In the boroughs, a number of qualifying systems prevailed. One factor did remain constant - the voter had to possess property. (1)
The ratio of MPs to population fluctuated wildly. A rotten borough was a parliamentary constituency 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 18th century it had declined to the level of a country village. Newtown on the Isle of Wight had been a market town but was now 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. "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?" (2)
With just a few individuals with the vote and no secret ballot, it was easy for candidates to buy their way to victory. In 1761 John Wilkes was elected MP for Aylesbury. To guarantee success he offered 300 of the 500 voters £5 each. (3)
William Wilberforce, decided to pursue a political career and at the age of twenty, he decided to become a candidate in the forthcoming parliamentary election in Kingston upon Hull in September 1780. His opponent was a rich and powerful member of the nobility, and Wilberforce had to spend nearly £9,000 on the 1,500 voters to become elected. (4)
In 1785 William Pitt attempted to reform the House of Commons. His bill proposed to remove 36 rotten boroughs and create new seats for London. It also would also marginally extended the vote to people with estates in the counties worth 40 shillings or more. Parliament voted by 248 votes to 174 not to debate the bill. Even the Prime Minister could not persuade a Parliament to consider the mildest reform to the corruption that secured their seats. (5)
The Tory leader, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, was a great supporter of rotten boroughs as they helped to maintain stability. In April 1831 he wrote: "I see in thirty members of 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; all our great institutions and corporations. 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." (6)
Earl Grey, a Whig, eventually persuade Parliament to pass the 1832 Reform Act. Voting in the boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with an annual value of £10. There were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas. It also abolished 57 rotten boroughs. "The overall effect of the Reform Act was to increase the number of voters by about 50 per cent as it added some 217,000 to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales. But 650,000 electors in a population of 14 million were a small minority." (7)
|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.
The conduct of government would be impossible, if the House of Commons should be brought to a greater degree under popular influence. That is the ground on which I stand in respect to the question in general of Reform in Parliament.
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.