A pocket borough was a parliamentary constituencies owned by one man who was known as the patron. Since the patron controlled the voting rights, he could nominate the two members who were to represent the borough. Some big landowners owned several pocket boroughs. For example, at the beginning of the 18th century, the Duke of Devonshire and Lord Darlington both had the power to nominate seven members of the House of Commons. Others, like Lord Fitzwilliam and Lord Lonsdale had even more seats under their control. All these men also had seats in the House of Lords.
Even those in favour of parliamentary reform had to to accept this system in order to be elected to the House of Commons. Henry Brougham developed a reputation as a lawyer with progressive views. This brought Brougham to the attention of the leaders of the Whigs. One of the Whig aristocrats, the Duke of Bedford, offered Brougham, the parliamentary seat of Camelford. The constituency only had thirty-one voters and they were all under Bedford's control. In 1812 Bedford sold Camelford to the Earl of Darlington for £32,000. Brougham, who represented the constituency, now had to find another seat. Four years later the Duke of Bedford sold another one of his seats, Okehampton in Devon, to Albany Savile for £60,000.
Men in favour of parliamentary reform were often forced to represent pocket boroughs. Sir Philip Francis the MP for Appleby wrote to a friend describing how had been "unanimously elected by one elector to represent the ancient borough of Appleby... there was no other candidate, no opposition, no poll demanded." He added that "on Friday morning I shall quit this triumphant scene with flying colours and a noble determination not to see it again in less than seven years."
The right to vote in Dorchester had been granted to all people who paid church and poor rates. The 6th Earl of Shaftesbury owned only half of the 408 houses in the town. To make sure he always controlled the constituency, the Shaftesbury leased out derelict plots of land to his friends during elections. This gave them the vote and guaranteed that Shaftesbury's candidates always won. This including his son, Anthony Ashley Cooper, who inherited his father's title in 1851.
Other political reformers such as Sir Francis Burdett also entered parliament in this way. In 1797 Burdett's wealthy father-in-law Thomas Coutts purchased the borough of Boroughbridge in Yorkshire from the Duke of Newcastle for £4,000. Coutts gave the seat to his son-in-law and later that year Francis Burdett became a member of the House of Commons.
Prospective members of the House of Commons used a variety of different methods to persuade people to vote for them. Some gave money or gifts while others offered them jobs. This could be an expensive business. Sir Francis Burdett left the pocket borough of Boroughbridge and decided to stand for the more democratic Middlesex seat. He was elected for Middlesex in 1802, but was defeated in the elections held in 1804 and 1806. It has been estimated that Burdett spent £100,000 during these two elections.
In Wooton Basset there were 309 eligible votes and the account books of the borough's patron, Joseph Pitt show that he was having to pay them from 20 to 45 guineas a head to guarantee they would vote for his two candidates. Other patrons used threats rather than bribes. A wealthy landowner might warn tenants that they would be evicted if they did not vote for his candidate. People such as shopkeepers, trades people, solicitors and doctors were sometimes threatened with an organised boycott of their business if they did not do as they were told.
|Appleby||Earl of Lonsdale|
|Bodmin||Lord de Dunstanville|
|Boroughbridge||Duke of Newcastle|
|Buckingham||Duke of Buckingham|
|Camelford||Earl of Darlington|
|Dorchester||Earl of Shaftesbury|
|East Grinstead||Duke of Dorset|
|Helstone||Duke of Leeds|
|Higham Ferrers||Earl Fitzwilliam|
|Launceston||Duke of Northumberland|
|Morpeth||Earl of Carlisle|
|Orford||Marquis of Hertford|
|Rye||Thomas Davis Lamb|
|St Mawes||Marquis of Buckingham|
|Tavistock||Duke of Bedford|
|Thetford||Duke of Grafton|
|Tregony||Duke of Cleveland|
|Woodstock||Duke of Marlborough|
|Wooton Basset||Joseph Pitt|
|Winchelsea||Marquis of Cleveland|
|Weobley||Marquis of Bath|
(1) Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791)
What is government more than the management of the affairs of a Nation? It is not, and from its nature cannot be, the property of any particular man or family, but of the whole community, at whose expense it is supported; and though by force or contrivance it has been usurped into an inheritance, the usurpation cannot alter the right of things.
Sovereignty, as a matter of right, appertains to the Nation only, and not to any individual; and a Nation has at all times an inherent indefeasible right to abolish any form of Government it finds inconvenient, and establish such as accords with its interest, disposition, and happiness. The romantic and barbarous distinction of men into Kings and subjects, though it may suit the condition of courtiers, cannot that of citizens; and is exploded by the principle upon which Governments are now founded. Every citizen is a member of the Sovereignty, and, as such, can acknowledge no personal subjection; and his obedience can be only to the laws.
(2) In April 1827 John Wilson Croker wrote a letter to George Canning about the topic of parliamentary reform.
I think it right to send you a memorandum which will show you, in one view, how impossible it is to do anything satisfactory towards a Government in this country without the help of the aristocracy. I know that you must be well aware of this, yet the following summary may not be useless to you, though I know that it is imperfect.
Numbers of members returned to the House of Commons by the influence of some of the peers:
Tories: Lord Lonsdale 9, Lord Hertford 8, Duke of Rutland 6, Duke of Newcastle 5, Lord Yarborough 5, Lord Powis 4, Lord Falmouth 4, Lord Anglesey 4, Lord Ailesbury 4, Lord Radnor 3, Duke of Northumberland 4, Duke of Buccleugh 4, Marquis of Stafford 3, Duke of Buckingham 3, Lord Monunt-Edgcumbe 4 - besides at least 12 or 14 who have two seats, say 26 - total 96.
Whigs: Lord Fitzwilliam 8, Lord Darlington 7, Duke of Devonshire 7, Duke of Norfolk 6, Lord Grosvenor 6, Duke of Bedford 4, Lord Carrington 4 - with about half a dozen who have a couple of seats - total 54.