A rotten borough was a parliamentary constituencies that had declined in size but still had the right to elect members of the House of Commons. Plympton Earle had been a prosperous market town in the Middle Ages but by the 19th century it had declined to the level of a country village. Newtown on the Isle of Wight had been a market town but by the time of the 1832 Reform Act it had been reduced to a village of 14 houses.
Most of these constituencies were under the control of one man, the patron. Rotten boroughs had very few voters. For example, Dunwich in Suffolk, as a result of coastal erosion, had almost fallen into the sea and by 1831 only had thirty-two people had the vote. Old Sarum, in Wiltshire, only had three houses and a population of fifteen people. With just a few individuals with the vote and no secret ballot, it was easy for candidates to buy their way to victory.
W. Heath's cartoon How to Get Made and M.P. (1830)
|Bramber||Duke of Rutland|
|East Looe||John Buller|
|Gatton||Sir Mark Wood|
|Old Sarum||Earl of Caledon|
|Newtown||Sir Fitzwilliam Barrington|
|Plympton Earle||Earl of Mount Edgcumbe|
(1) Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791)
The county of Yorkshire, which contains near a million souls, sends two county members; and so does the county of Rutland which contains not a hundredth part of that number. The town of Old Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upwards of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any. Is there any principle in these things?
(2) William Wilberforce, describing his election at Hull in 1807.
By long-established custom the single vote of a resident elector was rewarded with a donation of two guineas and the expenses of a freeman's journey from London averaged £10 a piece. The letter of the law was not broken, because the money was not paid until the last day on which election petitions could be presented.