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Two Rotten Boroughs
Election scandals in Steyning and Bramber

Tiny electorates for four MPs were bribed to a man by wealthy aristocrats, but the House of Commons fought back until in 1832 the rotten boroughs were finally abolished.

Harry Gough's CottageThe houses owned and rented out by Sir Harry Gough in Church Street, Steyning were actually in the Borough of Bramber. The tenants were not entitled to vote in Steyning elections.

Have electoral fraud and corruption always been with us? Well, yes of course, and a look at the past is a shocking lesson in how far democracy has progressed.

Steyning and Bramber have both taken their place in history as so called rotten boroughs, sometimes defined as pocket boroughs. The system was abolished after 1831, the last time that an electorate of 17 in Bramber and 118 in Steyning sent two Members of Parliament per borough to Westminster. That's four MPs and only 135 voters! It wasn't quite the worst case in the country, though. In Old Sarum, only three of the seven voters may have actually lived there. In contrast, the industrial city of Manchester didn't have one MP to call its own.

Bribing the entire Steyning or Bramber electorate was quite affordable when wealthy power-brokers wanted their man in the House of Commons. 'Treating' or entertaining voters was outlawed in an Act of 1772, as was voting by a show of hands. Before then, extraordinary sums were spent on drunken feasts during a campaign until the vote at a local inn. The show of hands could be delayed until some men were so drunk they were hardly conscious. The stakes were always high and after 1772, controlling the vote was just more imaginative. Free rents, housing repairs, cash and clandestine favours at election time were part of the otherwise impoverished local economy. Women couldn't vote but a man might offer to pay a generous rent to lodge with a widow some months before an election, even in a tiny house, if it entitled him to a vote,. The arrangement attracted little moral comment, especially since the lodger was hardly ever there.

William Wilberforce, the man who is most credited with the abolition of slavery, was an MP for Bramber. In 1820 Wilberforce expressed the hope that, "I need not go down to Bramber to be re-elected," observing to his wealthy sponsor - his wife's cousin Lord Calthorpe: "I should feel strangely embarrassed in addressing my thanks personally to my constituents, though I have only feelings of affectionate gratitude in thanking you." When he happened to pass through Bramber on a coach journey, Wilberforce stopped to ask the name of the village and replied to the answer with astonishment: "Bramber? Why, that's the place I'm Member for." It was as close as Bramber voters ever came to meeting the celebrated man they had three times elected. Needless to say, they expected little representation in Parliament from their local MPs, and received none.

Yet it may be unfair to blame Wilberforce. Just look at this snapshot of Bramber's history. By 1734 Bramber had been acquired by Sir Harry Gough, who leased it (and the right to nominate its MPs) to Lord Archer in 1741. Lord Archer was apparently paid £1000 by the government to allow Lord Malpas to be elected in 1754. In 1768 the Duke of Rutland gained control, but Gough regained power over one of the two seats by 1774 and it was inherited by his descendants, the Lords Calthorpe. These two families still shared the representation at the time of the Reform Act of 1832.

The privileged status of Steyning and Bramber dated back to Norman times, or arguably as far back as the Anglo-Saxon royal manor of Steyning. The castle built by the Braose barons at Bramber and the Fécamp Abbey church at Steyning were the seats of power and wealth from which their borough status originated. The two boroughs sent representatives to Parliament from the 1290s, sometimes as a pair before 1467. Those entitled to vote were men who lived on ancient burghage plots and paid 'scot and lot' local taxes, largely to support the poor. Voters were not eligible if they were receiving alms themselves.

Steyning Church and Bramber Castle deteriorated over the centuries to become "the haunt of pigeons" in a pair of rotten boroughs. The system was not designed for an electorate which sank into ever increasing poverty. Rich men competed to buy up burgage properties and sell or lease them to others who wanted to control a seat in the House of Commons. The hereditary right to present candidates for elections came up for sale too. It was eventually possible to take ownership of nearly all the electorate via their rents, plus the customary sweetners, or even to arrange an uncontested election.

So how was this system organised? One of the more curious documents in the museum archives is a copy of how corrupt practices were disentangled by a House of Commons committee, which sat for fifteen days in 1791 to examine the voting record of Steyning people during the hotly contested election of 1790.

Old men from Steyning, with long memories of past elections, were taken to London, probably in one of the coaches which regularly lumbered through Steyning, to testify to the assembled committee of MPs. You can almost hear the rural Sussex voices in the answers they gave in response to some very probing questions. William Peckham, who gave his age as, "four score three and a half," was asked, "Where was you born?" to which he answered, "It was a blacksmith's house in Steyning, an old Burgage house."

This was a key answer. Here was a man who lived in an 'ancient' burgage house in the Borough of Steyning who had a right to vote. There were 101 borough houses in the town with the right to vote and another 50 with no right to vote. The evidence, since transcribed onto 160 pages of typescript, traces the claims of the 'housekeepers' of all these houses and, in doing so, paints a marvellous picture of the town in 1791. Since there was a mish-mash of ownership and because 'housekeepers' might be bribed to change their allegiance, the temptation to fiddle the system or buy votes was strong. Interestingly, this may also explain why there are now so many ancient houses preserved in Bramber and Steyning.

Most houses in Steyning High Street had the vote but a few didn't. The Chequer Inn, for instance, was in the Manor of Charlton. This put it in the Hundred of Steyning, a separately administered agglomeration of manors and parishes, so not in the borough. William Downey was the pub landlord and a bit of a chancer. He rented a room in a borough house just to get a vote, along with its underhand rewards. As he didn't actually live there, his vote was later judged to be 'bad'. He may well have enjoyed a bribe or two during the election campaign, anyway, and cared little whether or not his vote was deemed legitimate by a committee the following year.

Henry Johnson, aged 85, was interviewed about the house in which he was born, known as the Tan Yard. His father, John Johnson, had been the master tanner there. The Tan Yard house, then in the south of the town, was found not to qualify for a vote. It was on the wrong side of Dog Lane and therefore in the Tything of Bidlington. Old Henry Johnson was no fool and knew what elections were all about. He had, in fact 're-located' for a few months into Mrs Martin's house, on an ancient plot, so that he could have a vote. (A descendant of John and Henry Johnson has been in touch with Steyning Museum's family historian - see a link to her blog on the right.)

On the other side of Singwell Street were the recently built Norfolk Cottages. They were on the site of some old stables. If they had been built on the footings of an old house, they might have qualified for the vote. But stables!

The ten houses of New Row in Back Lane (now Tanyard Lane) were even more recent, according to Daniel Easton. In February 1790, "when my wife and myself went to look at those houses not one of them was then occupied." They had been built, "where rooks had previously nested in tall elm trees," with no sign of an old house and so they, indisputably, did not qualify for the vote.

The Parliamentary Committee was also clear about 'Sir Harry Gough's House' in Church Street. It, together with most of the houses on that side of the street, was in the Borough of Bramber along with a few claimed by the manor of King's Barn. Unqualified jurisdictions and ownership gained no vote - whilst still, of course, being physically in the town of Steyning.

Sir Harry Gough's signOne of Sir Harry Gough's houses in Church Street, Steyning still has a sign on the front, a reminder of how he gained influence over Bramber Borough elections.

It was complicated but entirely familiar to the old men who had seen many an election. They knew that there were separate head-boroughs (like low level mayors), separate constables and separate courts for the Hundred and the Borough of Steyning and for the Borough of Bramber and the Tything of Bidlington. William Peckham even knew that, "the stocks near the Poor House (now Workhouse Cottages) were Hundred stocks, not Borough stocks." "How do you know they were Hundred stocks?" he was asked. "Because the Hundred people (those brought before the Hundred court) were whipped there," he replied.

In the end, 23 votes were judged to be invalid and the outcome of the 1790 Steyning election was reversed. The aristocrats who funded and organised elections for their own ends had been exposed - not that it would deter them. The MPs who relied on such sponsorhip still had no choice but to submit their careers to the will of hereditary peers. It seemed absurd that the House of Commons was powerless to free itself from these scandals, attracting ever more public scorn.

Yet Members of Parliament really did want democracy, such as it was, to function according to the rules and there had been many inquiries into corrupt elections. The rotten boroughs were finally abolished in the Reform Act which came into force for the General Election of 1832, when Steyning and Bramber joined the New Shoreham constituency. Election bribery on the industrial scale seen in the rotten boroughs came to an end, much to the regret of some, no doubt, and to the detriment of the local economy. From the residents of Steyning and Bramber it was only two cheers for the Honourable Members, perhaps.

Rotten Boroughs
in Comedy and Satire

From H.M.S. Pinafore
by Gilbert and Sullivan

Sir Joseph Porter:
I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into
I always voted at my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.

And he never thought of thinking for himself at all.

Sir Joseph Porter:
I thought so little they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

From Blackadder III
Dish and Dishonesty

A compilation of Blackadder's comments about a rotten borough:

A rotten borough, sir, is a constituency where the owner of the land corruptly controls both the voters and the MP. We must buy Dunny-on-the-Wold at once and thus control the voter. Only one actual person lives there, and he is the voter. The only question is who to choose as MP. What we need is an utter unknown yet someone over whom we have complete power. A man with no mind, with no ideas of his own. One might almost say a man with no brain. Our slogan shall be: "A rotten candidate for a rotten borough." Baldrick, I want you to go back to your kitchen sink, you see, and prepare for government.

From Vanity Fair
by William Thackeray

When Colonel Dobbin quitted the service, which he did immediately after his marriage, he rented a pretty country place in Hampshire, not far from Queen's Crawley [a rotten borough], where, after the passing of the Reform Bill [of 1832], Sir Pitt and his family constantly resided now. All idea of a peerage was out of the question, the baronet's two seats in Parliament being lost. He was both out of pocket and out of spirits by that catastrophe, failed in his health, and prophesied the speedy ruin of the Empire.

Letter containing a
description of the sea-coasts
from Daniel Defoe

Bramber (a little ruin of an old castle excepted) hardly deserves the name of a town, having not above fifteen or sixteen families in it, and of them not many above asking you for alms as you ride by; the chiefest house in the town is a tavern, and here, as I have been told, the vintner, or ale-house-keeper rather, for he hardly deserv'd the name of a vintner, boasted, that upon an election, just then over, he had made £300 of one pipe of canary [a cask of wine].


Blackadder Script
The complete script of Blackadder III, Dish and Dishonesty

The History of Parliament
An entry for Steyning Borough, 1790 to 1820. See also the entries for other dates as well as for Bramber.

Rotten and pocket boroughs, with links to Steyning and Bramber.

The House of
Commons Journal

An inquiry into the electiion at Bramber in 1768

The House of
Commons Journal
An inquiry into the electiion at Bramber in 1701. Samuel Shepherd, MP for Newport, was sent to the Tower of London for corrupting elections in several constituencies, including Bramber. See how the case progressed by searching in the Journal for Bramber and Samuel Shepherd. His story is presented on the History of Parliament website.

BBC drama series
Garrow's Law

Sir Arthur Hill is the MP 'for the corrupt Borough of Bramber' in this Eighteenth Century drama inspired by the real life barrister William Garrow.

Family History Blog
Steyning Museum's family historian has written a blog page about John Johnson, master tanner of Steyning, whose son Henry featured in the 1791 Parliamentary Committee investigation of the previous year's election. To contact our family historian, see details here.

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