Constituencies 1820-1832

Published in 2009

These are the most recent volumes in the History of Parliament series to be available on The History of Parliament Online. They provide the most comprehensive study ever compiled on Parliament between 1820 and 1832, the period of Catholic Emancipation, the trial of Queen Caroline, the pursuit of ‘Old Corruption’ and the Great Reform Act, when the United Kingdom came as close to revolution as it has been in modern times, and began its long transition to democracy. The seven volumes researched and published by the History of the Parliament Trust include biographies of the 1367 members of the House of Commons and accounts of politics and elections in each constituency during the period.

The constituency articles provide a catalogue of what the journalist William Cobbett called ‘old corruption’ in operation. Gatton in Surrey, for example, one of the most notorious rotten boroughs, had been owned since 1801 by a man who had made a fortune in India and sold the right to represent it to Tory supporters. The seat was sold after his death in 1829 to the Tory Baron Monson for the phenomenal sum of £170,000. Orford in Surrey, with an electorate of around 22, was the pocket borough of the marquesses of Hertford, who in 1822 added neighbouring Aldeburgh to his portfolio of seats, running elections in both boroughs through his political secretary, John Croker, whose day job was secretary to the admiralty. In 1831, the earl of Radnor claimed to be as confident that he could determine the way electors cast their votes at his family’s seat at Downton as ‘of my footman’s answering the bell when I ring’.

Collectively, the articles show that there was a natural expansion of the electorate before the Reform Act. From 1820-31 almost 60% of the 202 English borough constituencies experienced some form of growth. Freeman admissions by corporation boroughs to enhance their control, for example, increased the electorate at Bewdley three times – showing how electoral expansion was not always the same as the process of opening boroughs to more general election. Altogether, the unreformed English borough electorate expanded from 123,000 in 1820 to 168,000 in 1831. This, a rate of growth of 37%, compares with the 16% expansion of the electorate after the Reform Act.