Rotten boroughs became synonymous with the England’s unreformed electoral system [15-minute read]
In use as a term from the middle of the eighteenth century, ‘rotten boroughs’ describes constituencies in which very few voters resided, yet two MPs were still returned to the House of Commons at each election. Generally, these were tiny villages. In some cases, they were settlements which had once been much larger, but which had dramatically declined, perhaps through migration or (famously in the case of Dunwich in Suffolk) by coastal erosion. Even when this happened, the constituency retained its ancient borough status, returning the same number of representatives as booming urban and industrial centres like Manchester. Because they had so few voters, ‘rotten boroughs’ could easily be controlled, and in this sense, ‘rotten’ boroughs were similar to ‘pocket’ boroughs, where a particular family or employer or authority (like the Government, or the Admiralty), could, by dint of controlling property and economic opportunities, easily influence or even control which MPs were returned.
Perhaps the most notorious rotten borough was Old Sarum in Wiltshire. In the twelfth century, its cathedral was moved to New Sarum (now Salisbury) and the town followed, leaving the once-flourishing city deserted and virtually derelict. By the eighteenth century, it never had more than eleven voters (3 in 1728, 5 in 1734, 7 from 1754 to 1790, 11 or fewer from 1790 to 1832). The Pitts of Boconnoc owned all of the constituency’s burgages from 1754 to 1790, effectively controlling who sat in the seat, and a member of the Pitt family had been returned to Parliament for Old Sarum since 1689. By 1830, The Times reported that the borough ‘consists at present of a large circular mound of earth, surmounted in the centre by a smaller mound. Some bushes grow upon the top, and a flourishing crop of wheat and barley occupies the situation of the former rampart, but there is no house nor vestige of a house’. There was one absentee landowner, since 1802, the 2nd earl of Caledon from County Tyrone in Ireland, who used his control of the borough to support his family’s mercantile interests in India. His cousins, James Alexander and Josias Du Pre Alexander, represented the borough from 1820 until the borough’s eventual disenfranchisement, along with many other rotten boroughs, by the Reform Act of 1832.
In a field below the hilltop in Old Sarum was an old elm tree known as the ‘Parliament Tree’ or ‘Election Tree’, under which Old Sarum’s concise elections were held, a tradition that continued into the early nineteenth century. The image of a dead tree became a visual and lasting symbol of England’s rotten boroughs, as E. King’s 1831 caricature above depicts, with reformers wielding axes at the tree labelled ‘Rotten Borough System’. Each branch and each nest on the tree is labelled with the name of a well-known rotten borough: 31 in total. Meanwhile, an opposing group of men (including the likes of the Duke of Wellington) are attempting to prevent the felling of the dead tree, trying to hold it up with their bare hands or with wooden props which bear the names ‘Newcastle’ and ‘Chandos’, alluding to the influence of elite families within the rotten borough system.
The original Old Sarum Parliament Tree reportedly survived until 1902 or 1905, and today the Dorset History Centre holds in its archive a ‘Fragment of wood described as part of tree under which Members of Parliament for Old Sarum were chosen’.
What is particularly fascinating about this small fragment of wood, measuring 7cm x 4cm, is that someone felt it ought to be preserved, labelled, and archived. Written on the wood is, ‘Part of the tree under which the Members for Old Sarum were chosen before the Reform bill. The remainder of this tree is to be seen now in Stratford field under the castle – Henry Kaines’. Henry Kaines (1780-1840) appears to have been a farmer in Manston, Dorset. He seems to have been particularly interested in electoral corruption as his diary provides an account of voter intimidation when polling at Dorchester, while also recording details of electoral violence from 1823. The tree itself became an important symbol when debating reform prior to the 1832 Reform Act. One 1831 account claimed, for instance, that the ‘Parliament tree’ had been cut down and its limbs had ‘been carried today through Salisbury: they appeared to be sound, but the tree itself (like the present system) was found to be “rotten to the core”’.
The tree therefore came to represent the entirety of the pre-reform electoral system. Indeed, commemorative medals and other objects were made to mark the disenfranchisement of Old Sarum on 7 June 1832. Salisbury Museum holds a small snuffbox in the shape of a coffin, for instance, putatively made from wood from the Parliament Tree and inscribed, ‘Old Sarum died 7th June 1832, aged 584′. The old elm tree therefore took on the status and role of relic, marking the ‘death’ of a diseased political system.
The importance of the ‘Parliament tree’ remains potent even in the 21st century. The Parliament tree was memorialised when a new elm tree was planted near the location of the old one alongside a commemorative plaque by the MP of Salisbury in 2000. You can find this plaque on the footpath between The Portway and Castle Road in Old Sarum. The plaque reads:
ERECTED BY THE CORPORATION OF NEW SARUM
COMMEMORATES THAT NEAR THIS SPOT
BENEATH THE SPREADING BRANCHES OF AN ELM TREE
MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT FOR THE BOROUGH OF OLD SARUM
WERE IN FORMER TIMES ELECTED MOST NOTABLE OF WHOM WAS
AFTERWARDS EARL OF CHATHAM…
THIS SITE WAS RESTORED AND A NEW ELM TREE PLANTED
BY SALISBURY MP ROBERT KEY ON 7TH JUNE 2000 FOLLOWING
COLLABORATION BETWEEN ENGLISH HERITAGE, ORDNANCE SURVEY,
SALISBURY DISTRICT COUNCIL AND WILTSHIRE WILDLIFE TRUST
Old Sarum was by no means unique as a rotten borough. The Reform Act of 1832 disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales, reallocating these seats to 67 new constituencies. The map below shows the distribution of many of England’s rotten boroughs, typically clustered in the south of England, especially in Devon and Cornwall.
Map of England’s rotten and pocket boroughs. Made by Hillary Burlock in Google MyMaps, 2023.
Of ECPPEC’s case study constituencies, Minehead in Somerset and Mitchell in Cornwall serve as examples of rotten boroughs. Minehead was a small market town on the Bristol Channel in Somerset. Its fortunes had revolved around agriculture, fishing, and maritime trade, but over the course of the eighteenth century, its role as a port declined. Urban infrastructure and buildings consequently declined, particularly following the ‘Great Fire’ of 1791. The Luttrell family of Dunster Castle was politically powerful in Minehead, holding the right to appoint two constables (who served as returning officers during parliamentary elections). The Luttrells managed government influence and patronage within the borough from the 1760s, and amassed greater influence after purchasing more property in the area in 1803. Indeed, a pamphleteer accused the Luttrells of orchestrating the town’s economic demise to maintain their political power in the region. Indeed, a member of the family served as an MP from the 1690s through to the 1830s, and parliamentary elections in the borough went uncontested from 1774 to 1796. Treating and bribery were rife. In 1747, Henry Fownes Luttrell was advised that ‘I find th[a]t the common fellows (who make full two Thirds of the Votes) are at pr[e]sent gapeing very wide for Money, & th[a]t nothing but money & a great deal of it, & Gold Too will satisfy th[e]m’.
Similarly, the town of Mitchell in Cornwall was a largely desolate place in the eighteenth century. In 1715, it was described as a ‘small Hamlet, scarce containing thirty Houses’. In 1754, the electorate totalled 55. By the early nineteenth century only half of its surviving twenty-three houses were inhabited. The population declined further still, and by 1831 only 7 voters were recorded, making Mitchell the third smallest constituency in England. Consequently, the borough was easily controlled by Viscount Falmouth and Sir Christopher Hawkins, who tended to sell seats to supporters of the Administration. In 1760, Lord Edgcumbe claimed that the inhabitants were ‘in general low, indigent people, [who] will join such of the under Lords from whom they have reason to expect most money and favours’. There were no contested elections between 1784 and 1831.
The sheer absurdity of places like Minehead, Mitchell and Old Sarum returning two MPs to Westminster while the citizens of rapidly growing new cities such as Manchester and Leeds could vote only as part of vast county constituencies (respectively Lancashire and Yorkshire, which themselves only returned two MPs) was one of the main arguments of the Reform movement and in favour of the Reform Act eventually passed in 1832. The old system did have its defenders though, such as the Tory Prime Minister in 1830, the Duke of Wellington, who felt that Parliamentary reform would ‘destroy the country, the House of Lords the first probably and all its Institutions’. Rotten boroughs therefore allowed a different kind of MP to get into Parliament, and paved the way for the monarch and Government to smoothly manage elections and constituencies to allow talented, younger ministers to get into Parliament. Politicians who defended the rotten borough system often did so because they had a vested interest in maintaining the existing political system. Political, landowning families who maintained a strong interest in constituencies within their influence were averse to reform to maintain the power they had accumulated over generations. As hereditary peers did not have the right to vote, the cause of reformers was seen as destabilising their power base and weakening their political influence.
 The Times [London] (27 July 1830).
 ‘26 February 1823’, Diary of Henry Kaines of Manston, DHC, D-391/1.
 Stephen Farrell, ‘Old Sarum’, History of Parliament Online (2020) <https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/constituencies/old-sarum>
 Somerset Heritage Centre, DD/L/2/43/2/56: John St. Albyn to Henry Fownes Luttrell, 16 May 1747.
 Browne Willis, Notitia Parliamentaria: or, An History of the Counties, Cities, and Boroughs in England and Wales (2 vols., London, 1715), ii, 155.
 Lewis Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (2nd edn, London, 1978), 304.
 Parliamentary Archives, Letter from the Duke of Wellington to the Earl of Lucan on the Reform Bill, 13 March 1832, HL/PO/RO/1/156.