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Rotten borough

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Rotten borough

A rotten, decayed, or pocket borough was a parliamentary borough or constituency in the United Kingdom that had a very small electorate and could be used by a patron to gain undue and unrepresentative influence within the Unreformed House of Commons.

A rotten borough was an election borough with a very tiny population, often small enough that voters could be personally bribed. These boroughs had often been assigned representation when they were large cities, but the borough boundaries were never updated as the town's population declined. For example, in the 12th century Old Sarum had been a busy cathedral city but was abandoned when Salisbury was founded nearby; despite this, Old Sarum retained its two members. Many such rotten boroughs were controlled by peers who gave the seats to their sons, other relations or friends; they had additional influence in Parliament because they held seats themselves in the House of Lords.

Pocket boroughs were boroughs that could effectively be controlled by a single person who owned most of the land in the borough. As there was no secret ballot at the time, the landowner could evict residents who did not vote for the person he wanted.

By the 19th century, there were moves toward reform and this political movement was eventually successful, culminating in the Reform Act 1832, which disfranchised the 57 rotten boroughs and redistributed representation in Parliament to new major population centres. The Ballot Act of 1872 enacted a secret ballot, making vote bribery impractical as there is no way of knowing for certain how an individual has voted.

Quite a few famous statesmen actually represented pocket boroughs.



A "borough" was a town that possessed a Royal charter giving it the right to elect two members (known as burgesses) to the House of Commons. It was unusual for such a borough to change its boundaries as the town or city it was based on expanded, so that in time the borough and the town were no longer identical in area. The true rotten borough was a borough with a very small electorate.

Typically, rotten boroughs had gained representation in parliament when they were flourishing centres with a substantial population, but 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.

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. A member of Parliament for one borough might represent only a few people, whereas some large population centres were poorly represented. Manchester, for example, was part of the larger constituency of Lancashire and did not elect members separately until 1832. Examples of rotten boroughs include the following:

Each of these boroughs could elect two members of the Commons. By the time of the 1831 general election, out of 406 elected members, 152 were chosen by fewer than 100 voters, and 88 by fewer than 50 voters each.[1]

Many such rotten boroughs were controlled by peers who gave the seats to their sons, other relations, or friends, thus having influence in the House of Commons while also holding seats themselves in the House of Lords. 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. A common expression referring to such a situation was that "Mr. So-and-so had been elected on Lord This-and-that's interest".

There were also boroughs who were dependent not on a particular patron but rather on the Treasury or Admiralty and thus returned the candidates nominated by the ministers in charge of those departments.[2]

Such boroughs existed for centuries. The term rotten borough only came into usage in the 18th century, the qualification "rotten" suggesting both "corrupt" and "in decline for a very long time".


In the 19th century, there were moves toward reform, which broadly meant ending the over-representation of boroughs with few electors. This political movement had a major success in the Reform Act 1832, which disfranchised the 57 rotten boroughs listed below and redistributed representation in Parliament to new major population centres and to places with significant industries.

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.

Pocket boroughs

A closely related term for an undemocratic constituency is pocket borough – a constituency with a small enough electorate to be under the effective control (or in the pocket) of one major landowner.

In some boroughs, while not "rotten", parliamentary representation was in the control of one or more "patrons" who, by owning burgage tenements, had the power to decide elections, as their tenants had to vote publicly and dared not defy their landlords. Such patronage flourished before the mid-19th century, chiefly because there was no secret ballot. Some rich individuals controlled several boroughs–the Duke of Newcastle is said to have had seven boroughs "in his pocket". The representative of a pocket borough was often the same person 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.

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.

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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

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".


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'

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 Flashman 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 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).[8]

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


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.
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