The Reform Act of 1832 disenfranchised 57 “rotten” boroughs, areas of the country sending members to parliament despite very small populations. The most notorious of these was Old Sarum, a constituency of just seven voters that was responsible for the election of two MPs. These problems had come about due to the decrease in population in some areas and the increase in others, spurred on by the Industrial Revolution, among other factors. Although the Reform Act went a long way towards redressing the balance, rotten boroughs remained a topic of debate for a long time to come. The following quote is taken from the Brighton Gazette, 31st March 1859:
Much has been said lately about nomination boroughs, and Midhurst has been lately attacked as one of this class. We feel indebted to our late member (Mr Walpole) for his recent defence of our borough in the House of Commons, when it was attacked by Mr B. Osborne, the hon. member for Dover. He said—“I am better acquainted with Midhurst than any other borough in the kingdom. Midhurst has been a borough ever since parliaments assembled in Westminster. It was a small nomination borough returning members to Parliament with qualifications arising, I believe, from two old buildings. All the property round the borough was owned by a Whig, and Midhurst was not disfranchised in 1832. But it was extended, and it has now an area almost as large as some small counties. The great ally of the hon. member for Birmingham, Mr Cobden, lives in the borough, and he can tell whether I am right or wrong in what I am going to say. Under whose nomination is Midhurst? I know your answer, but the peer who you think has the nomination of the borough has not 50 tenants in it; I do not believe he has as many as 40. Midhurst is an agricultural borough, with proprietors, no doubt, around it, of Conservative principles. One of them lives m the immediate neighbourhood; but I can tell the House that there is as much independence among a large class of voters in Midhurst as there is in the town of Dover itself. Will you have no gratitude to a borough that, I venture to say, when you force me to the subject, has returned some members who have, perhaps, given a greater character to the House of Commons than any statesmen you could name? (“Hear, hear.”) Before Mr Fox was 19, he owed to the nomination borough of Midhurst his seat in this House. The Whig party is indebted for the fame of that great man to his early seat in this House, which he obtained through Midhurst, and I hope the Whigs, at all events, will never show such want of generosity as to disfranchise the borough which, by that one election, has added as much to the character the House of Commons as many of the greatest towns in England.”
Before the Reform Act Midhurst sent two members to parliament, and afterwards just one. In 1885 the constituency was abolished altogether. Looking at the population of the town at the time of this article, that might seem odd. The 1851 census shows the population of Midhurst as 1481. That figure is not too far off the population of the town in the 1970s (around 2000), although the town now has around 5000 residents. However, 1481 people was not the same as 1481 voters (and the same applied across the country). At the time of this article there were 429 registered electors for Midhurst, and these actually represented a much wider area than the town of Midhurst itself, but candidates were consistently unopposed, for every election between 1832 and 1868. Suffice to say, any candidate chosen to represent Midhurst at the time was certain to be elected, these matters were decided by major landowners, and voters who fell within their sphere of influence (e.g. tennants who lived in their property) were expected to vote a certain way, not that they had any choice with only one candidate! It was not uncommon for money to change hands to “buy seats”.
One such incumbent of a “bought” seat was the “Mr Fox” mentioned in the article: Charles James Fox, who started his political career in 1768 at the age of 19, while technically ineligible for parliament due to his age. He was an absolutely fascinating character whose views were often considered radical for the time, but a description of his political career is beyond the scope of this article.
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