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The term rotten borough (or pocket borough, as they were seen as being "in the pocket" of a patron) refers to a parliamentary borough or constituency in the Kingdom of England (pre-1707), the Kingdom of Great Britain (1707-1801), the Kingdom of Ireland (1536-1801) and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801 until their final abolishement in 1867) which due to size and population, was 'controlled' by a patron and used by a patron to exercise undue and unrepresentative influence within parliament. Though rotten boroughs existed for centuries the term rotten borough only came into usage in the 18th century.
The true Rotten Borough was a borough of a ridiculously small electorate. The pocket borough was a borough constituency with a small enough electorate to be under the effective control of a major landowner.
In some constituencies and boroughs, due to the small number of electors, the post of Member of Parliament could effectively be bought. Because the constituencies were not realigned as population shifts occurred, MPs from one borough might represent only a few people (giving those people a relatively large degree of political representation), whereas entire cities (such as Manchester) might have no representation at all. Examples include: Old Sarum in Wiltshire had eleven voters, Dunwich in Suffolk had 32 voters (the bulk of the settlements in the borough having fallen into the sea), Plympton Earle with 40 voters, and Newtown on the Isle of Wight with 23 voters (all figures for 1831). All of these boroughs could elect two MPs. At one point, out of 405 elected MPs, 293 were chosen by less than 500 voters. (Spielvogel) Many such rotten boroughs were controlled by peers who 'gave' the seats to their sons, they thus having influence in the House of Commons while also holding seats themselves in the House of Lords. The Duke of Wellington, prior to being awarded a peerage served as MP for the rotten borough of Trim in County Meath in the Irish House of Commons.
In addition, there were boroughs where parliamentary representation was in the control of one or more 'patrons' by their power to either nominate or other machinations, such as burgage . Patronage and bribery were rife during this period. In some cases, wealthy individuals could "control" multiple boroughs -- the Duke of Newcastle is said to have had seven boroughs "in his pocket".
The pocket boroughs were seen (particularly by their owners) in the early 19th century as a valuable method of ensuring the representation of the landed interest in the House of Commons.
Among the few members in the House of Commons calling for parliamentary reform was Sir Francis Burdett (see External link below).
End of the Rotten Boroughs
In the 19th century measures began to be taken against rotten boroughs, notably the Reform Act 1832 which abolished most rotten boroughs and spread parliamentary seats more closely to population centres and significant industries. Many pocket boroughs were retained.
The final abolition of pocket boroughs took until the Reform Act 1867 where the borough franchise was significantly extended it was established that seats should be distributed based principally on population. Successive Reform Acts and Representation of the People Acts set up the Boundary Commission to ensure equitable representation on a rolling basis.
The introduction of the secret ballot in the 1880s helped prevent patrons from controlling districts, as they could no longer examine an individual's vote prior to its casting, electors as a result for the first time having the freedom to cast votes as they, not their landlord, wished. At the same time the practice of 'treating' the electorate (gifts of money or extravagant entertainment from candidates to voters) was outlawed; election expenses fell dramatically.
Today, "rotten borough" is sometimes used to refer to a parliamentary constituency in which one particular political party has such massive support that its candidate is effectively uncontested; a more polite term is "safe seat". Sometimes this term is used for an individual or family who have represented the same area for a long period of time, particularly when changing party allegiance whilst retaining the support of their constituency.
It is also used to refer to allegedly corrupt branches of local government - Private Eye has a column entitled Rotten Boroughs which lists stories of municipal wrongdoing.
See also: gerrymander
The subject arose in an amusing exchange in a third-season Blackadder episode:
Edmund Blackadder: Sir Talbot represented the constituency of Dunny-on-the-Wold, and, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, it is a rotten borough.
Prince George: Really! Is it! Well, lucky-lucky us. Lucky-lucky-luck. (as a chicken) Luck-luck-LAKK-LAKK-LAKK-LAKK-cluck-cluck-cluck-cluck-cluck-LAKK-LAKK-LAKK.
Edmund: You don't know what a rotten borough is, do you, sir.
P George: No.
Edmund: So what was the chicken impression in aid of?
P George: Well, I just didn't want to hurt your feelings. Erm, so, what is a robber button?
Edmund: *Rotten borough*.
P George: Oh, yes, you're right.
Edmund: A rotten borough, sir, is a constituency where the owner of the land corruptly controls both the voters and the MP.
P George: Good, yes...and a robber button is...?
Edmund: Could we leave that for a moment? Dunny-on-the-Wold is a tuppenny-ha'penny place. Half an acre of sodden marshland in the Suffolk Fens with an empty town hall on it. Population: three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named `Colin', and a small hen in its late forties.
P George: So, no people at all, then? apart from Colin...
Edmund: Colin is a dog, sir.
P George: Well, yes, yes, yes...
Edmund: Only one actual person lives there, and he is the voter.
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