Rotten and pocket boroughs

Old Sarum in Wiltshire, an uninhabited hill which until 1832 elected two Members of Parliament. Painting by John Constable, 1829

A rotten or pocket borough, also known as a nomination borough or proprietorial borough, was a parliamentary borough or constituency in England, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom before 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.

Old Sarum in Wiltshire (pictured) was the most notorious pocket borough. It was a possession of the Pitt family from the mid-17th century until 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 only £700 a year (which would be equivalent to a capital sum of around £20,000 at most).

Background

A parliamentary borough was a town or former town which was (had been) incorporated under a royal charter, giving it the right to send two elected burgesses as Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons. It was not unusual for the physical boundary of the settlement to change as the town developed or contracted over time, for example due to changes in its trade and industry, so that the boundaries of the parliamentary borough and of 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 or otherwise influenced by a single wealthy patron. In the early 19th century, reformists scornfully called these boroughs "rotten boroughs" or "pocket boroughs", or more formally "nomination boroughs", because their democratic processes were rotten and their MP(s) were elected by the whim of the patron, thus "in his pocket"; the actual votes of the electors were a mere formality; all or most of them voted as the patron instructed them, with or without bribery. As voting was by show of hands at a single polling station at a single time, none dared to vote contrary to the instructions of the patron. Often only one candidate would be nominated (or two for a two-seat constituency), so that the election was uncontested.

Thus an MP might represent only a few constituents, while at the same time many new towns, which had grown due to increased trade and industry, were entirely unrepresented, or inadequately represented. For example, before 1832 the town of Manchester, which expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution from a small settlement into a large city, was merely part of the larger county constituency of Lancashire and did not elect its own MPs.

Many of these ancient boroughs elected two MPs. By the time of the 1831 general election, out of 406 elected members, 152 were chosen by fewer than 100 voters each, and 88 by fewer than fifty voters.[1]

By the early 19th century moves were made towards reform, with eventual success when the Reform Act 1832 disenfranchised the rotten boroughs and redistributed representation in Parliament to new major population centres. The Ballot Act 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.

Other Languages
español: Burgo podrido
Esperanto: Rotten borough
euskara: Burgu usteldu
français: Bourg pourri
italiano: Borghi putridi
日本語: 腐敗選挙区
Simple English: Rotten borough
українська: Гнилі містечка
中文: 腐敗選區