Borough representation is the rotten part of the constitution."
- William Pitt the Elder (see below)
A constituency for the British House of Commons with a
small population, and a golden opportunity to effect the corruption of
Parliament, caused by the pretense that it was still the Middle Ages.
"So what is a robber button?"
Many of you will have been introduced to the rotten borough notion from
"Dish and Dishonesty", an episode in the third season of Black Adder.
Mr. Blackadder's servant, a Baldrick, gets himself elected via the constituency
of Dunny-on-the-Wold, a constituency of one voter who lives on land owned
by.. Mr. Blackadder, of course. Much hilarity ensued.
Sadly, or perhaps happily, Dunny-on-the-Wold never existed, but several
places like Dunny existed throughout England, mostly in the southeast.
The original constituencies of the House of Commons had been set up
by Simon de Montfort in 1265. Each county sent two representatives
to Parliament; in addition, each town of a certain size, or 'borough',
was allowed to send two voters as well.
The number of constituencies could be increased by Royal Charter, but it appears none were ever taken away. As Wales, Ireland, and Scotland were bundled into a United
Kingdom over time, they were eventually allowed to send members to the
House of Commons, one per county, one per borough. Of course, no
Catholics needed bother applying.
Needless to say, the country's population distribution changed over
the centuries. Through the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution
saw new cities spring out of nowhere. Other boroughs withered
away to nothing or fell into the sea, but still sent two members to Parliament
An enterprising person could get into Parliament relatively cheaply
by buying off the few voters in one of these boroughs, or find a rich patron
to do it for him. The voters, usually the leading lights of
the community, were only too happy to oblige for a few extra pounds.
(Representatives from other 'pocket boroughs' were not even elected;
they were appointed by a patron).
This was certainly the impetus for the framers of the Constitution of the new United States
to institute a decennial census and reapportionment of districts for
the House of Representatives. Thomas Paine's pamphlet The Rights
of Man, published in Revolutionary France, exposed this corrupt system
to the common man; the pamphlet sold like wildfire in England. For this
sedition, Paine was tried in absentia and sentenced to death.
By 1831, this situation had reached absurd proportions:
At one point, 293 of the 405 seats in the House of Commons were elected by fewer than 500 voters.
Some famous beneficiaries of the Rotten Borough system include:
Whig leader Earl Grey formed a government in 1830 with the stated
intention of ending the Rotten Boroughs. The first attempt in 1831
passed the House of Commons, but was defeated in the Tory controlled House
of Lords, leading to widespread rioting in the disenfranchised cities.
After the failure of a Tory government in 1832, and with civil war threatening,
William IV acceded to Earl Grey's request and created enough new peers
to give the Whigs a majority in the House Of Lords. The Reform Act
finally passed in 1832, ending the old system, or at least making it less
egregious. Along with the lowering of property restrictions for franchisement,
56 boroughs with an average of 39 electors per seat were eliminated. Manchester
and the other large cities were allowed to send two members each.
United Kingdom Election Results
Parliamentary Constituencies in the unreformed House
Mercia Maps and Historic Maps - MapHisteria - The 1832 Reform Act