Shaftesbury: Pocket Borough
From 1295 to 1832 Shaftesbury returned two MPs to parliament, but not always in the most democratic way, as Michael Handy reports
Published in July ’15
In 1774, Parliament imposed the ‘Coercive Acts’ – Britain’s response to the Boston Tea Party – on British subjects from the thirteen American colonies. In the previous year, some of these subjects, resentful of additional taxation without representation, had dumped a load of taxed tea into the Boston harbour.
1774 was also the year in which an issue of representation and indeed money loomed large in Shaftesbury; it was the so-called ‘Corrupt Election of 1774’. The word ‘corrupt’ is far from being a black and white term, though, not least as far as parliamentary constituencies in general and boroughs in particular were concerned.
Shaftesbury was one of four Dorset boroughs identified in the Domesday Book of 1086 (along with Bridport, Dorchester and Wareham) and between 1295 and 1832, except for a period of unpleasantness during the interregnum, Shaftesbury returned two Members of Parliament from the borough (which largely consisted of buildings in bits of three parishes in and around the town). The elections that returned them, though, were not as we know them today. In the 1831 election (a year before the Great Reform Act of 1832 reduced Shaftesbury’s two MPs to one) the electorate consisted of the inhabitant householders of the 400 properties paying ‘scot and lot’: the medieval tax which granted one a franchise to vote. In terms of those seeking to stand for election, though, that privilege was normally in the gift of the large local landowners or patrons. Gift is perhaps the wrong word as one could sell the right to stand in what all those connected with the transaction hoped would be an uncontested election.
Twenty years before the 1774 election, Sir Thomas Clavering paid £2000 (£380,000 in today’s money) for the right to stand as one of Shaftesbury’s two MPs. In the mid-18th century, Lord Ilchester and the Earl of Shaftesbury were the two patrons of Shaftesbury and over a period each appear’s to have allowed the other to nominate one Member in order to prevent the need for an actual election.
Buying the right to represent a constituency was perfectly legal at the time, what was not, however, was buying the vote of any of the electors. For this reason, uninhabited boroughs commanded an even higher price. Probably the most infamous of these was Old Sarum, just 20 miles east of Shaftesbury. It was owned by the Pitt family from the Restoration to when they sold it (and the right to elect its two MPs) in 1802 for an eye-watering £60,000 (£4,000,000 in today’s money). This price represented around 85 times the then value of the Manorial rights to the land, so it is fair to assume that the right to elect two MPs represented the greater portion of the sale’s value.
Although the right to stand in an election in one of these so-called pocket boroughs could be bought for money, if there was an electorate in the borough, it did not guarantee that it would be an uncontested election.
By 1830, the Earl of Grosvenor had taken over patronage of the borough and adopted a slightly different approach from throwing money at the election in order to ensure the success of the person to whom he had granted the privilege of standing: he threatened those of his tenants who could not demonstrate that they had voted for his preferred candidate with eviction. How could he guarantee that the demonstration was genuine? Simply that they would all be evicted if the right person did not get elected.
This may seem not to be entirely in the spirit of free and fair elections, but, ironically, prior to the American War of Independence, pocket boroughs were often touted as being pro-democratic in that they were often the colony’s (and indeed other colonies’) best chance of representation in the British Parliament.
Twenty years before the 1774 election, Lord Ilchester wrote to Lord Newcastle stating: ‘Shaftesbury is a troublesome, expensive, and corrupt’ borough. For some time Ilchester had disputed its control with Lord Shaftesbury, but in 1747 they agreed each to nominate one Member and by 1754 they were, according to Shaftesbury historian J Rutter: ‘gradually becoming, in the estimation of many, somewhat arbitrary and less liberal in their connexions with the inhabitants, an opposite interest was created about the year 1761 by the unexpected introduction of what was termed an independent, or third, candidate’.
Edward Drax, who stood as the independent in 1761, was defeated, but in 1768, William Chaffin Grove was successful at the expense of Ilchester’s candidate.
It was at this election that the custom of ‘lending’ money to the electors against their note of hand started.
In 1771 Francis Sykes, a nabob, standing on Lord Shaftesbury’s interest, defeated Hans Winthrop Mortimer, the independent candidate. A fortnight later Lord Shaftesbury died, leaving as his successor a boy of nine. Sykes now began to build up his own interest, and secured control of the corporation. In 1774 he stood, supported by the Shaftesbury interest, in partnership with another nabob, Thomas Rumbold, who was Ilchester’s candidate. The election was riotous and expensive; Sykes and Rumbold are said to have paid 20 guineas a man for their votes and the official parliamentary returns for the 7 October election are as follows:
FRANCIS SYKES 284
THOMAS RUMBOLD 248
Hans Winthrop Mortimer 112
which would put the cost of the election to Sykes and Rumbold of £558 12s (around £75,000 today). But worse was to come for them: the magistrates of the town were implicated in the bribery and ‘Rotten borough’ chronicler, Thomas Oldfield, wrote of the ‘very singular and very absurd contrivances’ unsuccessfully used in the hope of preventing proof of involvement.
These contrivances were that: ‘A person concealed under a ludicrous and fantastical disguise, and called by the name of Punch, was placed in a small apartment, and through a hole in the door delivered to the voters parcels, containing twenty guineas each: upon which they were conducted to another apartment in the same house, where they found another person called Punch’s secretary, who required them to sign notes for the value received: these notes were made payable to an imaginary character, to whom was given the name of Glenbucket.’
Two of the witnesses to the Commons Committee swore that they had seen Punch through the hole in the door, and that they knew him to be Mr. Matthews, an alderman of the town; the committee accepted the evidence before them, declared Sykes and Rumbold not to be duly elected but Mortimer duly elected to one of the seats in their place, and further ordered that Sykes, Rumbold, and a whole host of other from the town be prosecuted by the Attorney General for bribery and perjury. A bill was even proposed to deprive the guilty parties of their votes but was never passed; the prosecution never took place and the Commons was eventually persuaded to reverse its condemnations of Sykes and Rumbold so that both were able to stand for the borough at the next general election.
They did not though escape penalty. Mortimer brought a civil suit for bribery against Sykes at Dorchester Assizes, and was awarded £11,000 in damages – which he used to buy houses in the town, increasing his own influence at future elections.
Ilchester sold most of his property in the town to Sykes; Shaftesbury withdrew from any involvement. Mortimer continued his acquisition of property in the town until he owned the majority of houses in the borough. By 1784 Mortimer had achieved control over the corporation, and both independent candidates were successful on the poll. So strong was Mortimer now that in 1786 he was able to secure the uncontested return of John Drummond, the first candidate to be returned unopposed since 1754. Shaftesbury lost its right to return even one MP in 1885.