Saturday, 1 October 2011

The unreformed House of Commons prior to 1832

From The Unreformed House of Commons by E. and A.G. Porritt (1903):

"Prior to the Reform Act of 1832, there were 658 members of the House of Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland. Of these, 513 were from England and Wales; 45 from Scotland; and 100 from Ireland. The members from each country were elected on franchises peculiar to each, the one condition uniform throughout was that all members of the House of Commons served without pay.

The number of members representing England and Wales at this time had been stationary at 513 for one hundred and fifty-five years. In this period there had been some slight redistribution of electoral power, due to the mode in which Parliament from 1770 had dealt with boroughs of proved delinquency.... From the Revolution, writs had been frequently withheld from such delinquent boroughs, and Bills for their partial disfranchisement had been introduced in the House of Commons.... [U]ntil 1770, the House of Lords had never given its assent to any of these Bills, and no statutory measures had been carried for penalising delinquent boroughs. But by 1832, as the result of Acts passed with this intent, there were five fewer self-contained Parliamentary boroughs than in 1677, after the enfranchisement of Newark, the last English constituency to come into the representative system.

Up to 1832, only one of these delinquent boroughs, for generations previously the plague-spots of the electoral system, had completely lost its franchise. This was the long notorious Grampound, a name which even to-day... always recalls the unreformed House of Commons, and is yet a synonym of electoral squalor and corruption. Grampound lost its franchise in 1821 when its right to elect two members was transferred to Yorkshire, and there was thereby made the first addition to the number of English county representatives subsequent to the admission of the county of Durham into the representative system in 1674."

From Sir Thomas Erskine May, Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third:

"The first and most flagrant anomaly was that of nomination boroughs. Some of these boroughs had been, from their first creation, too inconsiderable to aspire to independence; and being without any importance of their own, looked up for patronage and protection to the Crown, and to their territorial neighbours. The influence of the great nobles over such places as these was acknowledged and exerted so far back as the fifteenth century. It was freely discussed in the reign of Elizabeth.... As the system of Parliamentary Government developed itself, such interest became more and more important to the nobles and great landowners, who accordingly spared no pains to extend it.... Places like Old Sarum, with fewer inhabitants than an ordinary hamlet, avowedly returned the nominees of their proprietors. In other boroughs of more pretensions in respect of population and property, the number of inhabitants enjoying the franchise was so limited, as to bring the representation under the patronage of one or more persons of local or municipal influence....

In 1793, the Society of the Friends of the People were prepared to prove that in England and Wales seventy members were returned by thirty-five places in which there were scarcely any electors at all; that ninety members were returned by forty-six places with less than fifty electors; and thirty-seven members by nineteen places having not more than one hundred electors. Such places were returning members, while Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester were unrepresented; and their pretended representatives were the nominees of peers and other wealthy patrons, and voted at their bidding. No abuse was more flagrant than the direct control of peers over the constitution of the Lower House. The Duke of Norfolk was represented by eleven members; Lord Lonsdale by nine; Lord Darlington by seven; the Duke of Rutland, the Marquess of Buckingham, and Lord Carrington, each by six. Seats were held, in both Houses alike, by hereditary right.

Where the number of electors in a borough was sufficient to ensure their independence in the exercise of the franchise, they were soon taught that their votes would command a price; and thus, where nomination ceased, the influence of bribery commenced....

Where the return of members was left to a small, but independent body of electors, their individual votes were secured by bribery; and when it rested with proprietors or corporations, the seat was purchased outright. The sale of boroughs was an abuse of some antiquity, and often practised since the time of Charles II. It became... a general and notorious system. The right of property in boroughs was acknowledged, and capable of sale or transfer, like any other property. In 1766, Lord Hertford prevailed upon Lord Chatham's Ministry to transfer to him the borough of Orford, which belonged to the Crown. And Sudbury, infamous for its corruption until its ultimate disfranchisement, publicly advertised itself for sale.

If a seat occupied by any member happened to be required by the Government, for some other candidate, he was bought out, at a price agreed upon between them. Thus in 1764, we find Lord Chesterfield advising his son upon the best means of securing £1,000 for the surrender of his seat, which had cost him £2,000 at the beginning of the Parliament....

The system of purchasing seats in the House of Commons, however indefensible in principle, was at least preferable to the general corruption of electors, and in some respects, to the more prevalent practice of nomination. To buy a seat in Parliament was often the only means by which an independent member could gain admission to the House of Commons. If he accepted a seat from a patron, his independence was compromised: but if he acquired a seat by purchase, he was free to vote according to his own opinions and conscience. Thus, we find Sir Samuel Romilly - the most pure and virtuous of public men - who had declined one seat from the favour of the Prince of Wales, justifying the purchase of another, for the sake of his own independence, and the public interests....

So regular was the market for seats, that where it was inconvenient to candidates to pay down the purchase-money, they were accommodated by its commutation into an annual rent. It was the sole redeeming quality of this traffic, that boroughs were generally disposed of to persons professing the same political opinions as the proprietors. These nominees were unknown to their constituents, and were sometimes under an engagement not to make their acquaintance....

Boroughs whose members were nominated, as to an office, and boroughs bought in the open market, or corrupted by lavish bribery, could not pretend to popular election. The members for such places were independent of the people whom they professed to represent. But there were populous places, thriving ports, and manufacturing towns, whence representatives, freely chosen, might have been expected to find their way into the House of Commons. But these very places were the favourite resort of the Government candidates.... The smaller boroughs were already secured by purchase, or overwhelming local interest: but the cities and ports had some pretensions to independence. Here, however, troops of petty officers of customs and excise were driven to the poll, and, supported by venal freemen, overpowered the independent electors....

Such being the dependence and corruption of the smaller boroughs, and such the Government influence in many of the larger towns, there were still a few great cities, with rights of election, whose inhabitants neither landowners nor Government could control, and which were beyond the influence of corruption. Here, at least, there might have been a free expression of public opinion. But such were the vices of the laws which formerly regulated elections - laws not designed for the protection of the franchise - that a popular candidate, with a majority of votes, might be met by obstacles so vexatious and oppressive, as to debar him from the free suffrage of the electors. If not defeated at the poll by riots and open violence, or defrauded of his votes by the partiality of the returning officer, or the factious manoeuvres of his opponents, he was ruined by the extravagant costs of his victory. The poll was liable to be kept open for forty days, entailing an enormous expense upon the candidates, and prolific of bribery, treating, and riots. During this period the public houses were thrown open; and drunkenness and disorder prevailed in the streets, and at the hustings. Bands of hired ruffians, armed with bludgeons, and inflamed by drink, paraded the public thoroughfares, intimidating voters, and resisting their access to the polling places. Candidates, assailed with offensive and often dangerous missiles, braved the penalties of the pillory; while their supporters were exposed to the fury of a drunken mob....

Such being the state of the representation in the United Kingdom, an actual majority of the members of the House of Commons were returned by an inconsiderable number of persons. According to a statement made by the Duke of Richmond in 1780, not more than six thousand men returned a clear majority of the House of Commons. It was alleged in the petition of the Society of the Friends of the People, presented by Mr. Grey in 1793, that eighty-four individuals absolutely returned one hundred and fifty-seven members to Parliament; that seventy influential men secured the return of one hundred and fifty members; and that, in this manner, three hundred and fifty-seven members - being the majority of the House, before the union with Ireland - were returned to Parliament by one hundred and fifty-four patrons; of whom forty were peers. In 1821, Mr. Lambton stated that he was prepared to prove by evidence, at the bar of the House of Commons, "that one hundred and eighty individuals returned, by nomination or otherwise, three hundred and fifty members".

Dr. Oldfield's Representative History furnishes still more elaborate statistics of Parliamentary patronage.... The general result of these surprising statements is that of the six hundred and fifty-eight members of the House of Commons, four hundred and eighty-seven were returned by nomination; and one hundred and seventy-one only were representatives of independent constituencies.... [W]e are unable to resist the conclusion, that not more than one-third of the House of Commons were the free choice even of the limited bodies of electors then entrusted with the franchise."