'An Election's A Fair'... Bribery & Corruption at Wiltshire's Parliamentary Elections

on Tuesday, 30 April 2013. Posted in Wiltshire People

Bribery, corruption, intrigue, rotten boroughs and riots …oh dear, that will be Wiltshire’s parliamentary elections in eighteenth and nineteenth century! Present events always give us an opportunity to take the long-view and here at the History Centre we have a range of resources on the political history of the county and borough, from excellent accounts published in the Victoria County History for Wiltshire to election squibs, poll books and original documents.

Wiltshire’s early claim to political fame was the impressive size of its parliamentary representation. Until 1832 it elected two Knights of the Shire (representing the whole county), two MPs for Salisbury, and two burgesses for each of its 15 boroughs, a grand total of 34 seats. Only Cornwall had higher. This was especially impressive given that many of the boroughs were the size of a village, and few of their residents could vote.  The most notable, of course, was Old Sarum, which retuned two MPs and in 1768, it is claimed, had an electorate of, er…one, though usually could count on seven. Other small boroughs included Great Bedwyn, Cricklade, Downton, Heytesbury, Hindon, Ludgershall and Wootton Bassett. Yet other towns like Bradford on Avon, Corsham, Trowbridge, and Warminster could not send representatives to parliament.

The remaining boroughs electing two MP’s were Calne, Chippenham, Devizes, Marlborough, Malmesbury, Marlborough, Westbury and Wilton. But don’t think for one minute that the larger towns necessarily had a bigger electorate. Malmesbury weighed in with a total electorate of 13, and if this was not enough it was notable for being one of the most corrupt boroughs in England. Cricklade, on the other hand, through the Act of 1782, had its franchise extended to all freeholders in the surrounding area, numbering 1,200. This made bribery and corruption more difficult, but unfortunately fewer than fifty voters actually lived in the borough itself.

Most readers of this blog will hopefully remember school history lessons and the dreaded rotten borough, together with its more forgotten cousin, the pocket borough. Both terms have become interchangeable, but essentially a rotten borough was one that was open to bribery and corruption, often with a small or virtually no electorate, while the other was owned or “in the pocket” of a member of the local aristocracy or gentry with few contested elections. Old Sarum managed to be both. One patron of Old Sarum was William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke of Wilton, who between 1614 and 1628 also managed to get his nominees elected at 98 places in 88 elections in England, including Downton, Devizes and Wilton. Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, squabbled with Pembroke over the rights to Old Sarum, such was its electoral value. Cecil won, but sold it to the Pitt family, where it remained until 1804. William Pitt the Elder was one of its MPs.

Wilton, of course, was completely under the control of Pembroke, while for much of the eighteenth century Calne was influenced by the Landsdowne family. The Bertie family, Earls of Abingdon, dominated politics in Westbury. Abingdon’s tenants had to provide a bond of £20 to vote for his candidate for as long as they lived. Secret ballots were not introduced until 1872, so the pressure to vote for your landlord or employer’s nominee was immense. When Sir Manasseh Lopes purchased the manor and borough of Westbury from the Earl of Abingdon in 1810, he still had some work to do to sure up his political destiny (he was retuned to Parliament in 1820). He first had to rebuild 61 derelict burgages to house his tenants and then make them freeholders for just one hour so that they were eligible to vote! This practice was not uncommon. Over the previous 50 years Lord Bruce purchased virtually all of the burgages in Great Bedwyn. Bruce had also bought up most interest in Marlborough, so much so that the last contested election was in 1734. However, for the honour of the worst pocket borough in Wiltshire, step forward Heytesbury and the A’Court family, where the number of contested elections between 1689 and its demise in 1832 was…zero.

Where there was a contested election, the antics can provide the historian with much amusement. In 1772 Ambrose Goddard challenged Henry Herbert, grandson of the Earl of Pembroke, for one of the county (Knight of the Shire) seats, after the retirement of the sitting MP, Mr Poppham. This exposed a north - south divide in the electorate, with Goddard representing the north. Unfortunately, there was only one polling station in those days at, you guessed it, Wilton, home of Earl Pembroke. Goddard squeezed in, but not until he had spent £8,154 16s 0¼d on beds, meals and stabling for his supporters at 50 inns in the south of the county.

But it is the vast array of election material that catches the eye, heavy in satirical content, often written under pseudonyms. It included a poem by Jonathan Swift Junior entitled the Wolves and Moon, with a footnote suggesting that “the lines make up the whole of the objections raised against Mr. Wellesley …as they apply equally to the Moon.”  Kaleidoscopiana Wiltoniensia, by An Observer, provides a collection of all the letters, speeches, squibs and songs published during the election and is located in the Wiltshire Studies Library at the History Centre. It includes contributions from Old Moonraker, New Moonraker replying to Old Moonraker, Notorious Quorom and Antiquorum; Barley-corn, Britannicus and Busy Body, competing with Candidus and Lunatic; letters from the Mild Inquirer and the Constant Reader vied with contributions from Rusticus, Veritas and the Veteran; not forgetting the supposed intervention of the “Dorset Farmers” and, if that wasn’t enough, the “Yorkshire Farmers” got in on the act as well.

Of course, after all this, the only question you really want to know is, could my ancestors vote? Well some could, though not if you were a woman. While the countywide elections tended to be based on the qualifications of freeholders, boroughs each had their own rules. So in an 1819 poll book occupations included gentlemen and yeomen; dissenting ministers, licensed curates and parish clerks; cordwainers, plumbers, butchers and bakers, gardeners, oilmen, waiters, blacksmiths, labourers and a slubber (look that one up your self…). But of course in 1831 only 1,200 people out of a population of 240,000 in Wiltshire could vote. The Reform Act of 1832 swept many of the rotten and pocket boroughs away, reduced bribery and corruption, but also the number seats. It introduced coherent property qualifications for voting across the country, though the gentry and large landowners still retained their influence. It some cases, poorer people actually lost the vote, though the total number of voters in the county had risen to the dizzy height of 9,898. Universal male suffrage was not complete until the end of the nineteenth century (still only one person in 19 could vote in 1865), while women’s suffrage was introduced for parliamentary elections after the First World War. In 1834 Wiltshire returned only 18 MPs and by 1918 it was 5. The rest, as they say, is history.

 Terry Bracher
Archives & Local Studies Manager

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