The destination for history

13 things you never knew about British democracy


Whilst turnout is generally expected to increase for each election, it was not so long ago that a large percentage of the population was ineligible to vote.

Before the 1832 Reform Act, only a small number of men (and no women) had the vote and the voting qualifications varied from constituency to constituency. In England and Wales only about 12 per cent of adult men had the vote and the proportion was even less in Scotland and Ireland. Women did not vote at all. At one time corruption was rife. Until 1872 voting was in public and corruption was common until 1883. A single person controlled a rotten borough that returned two Members of Parliament, and for a number of years one of them was the prime minister.

But what has changed since then? Here’s thirteen fascinating facts about the history of British democracy ...


The constituency of Dunwich returned two MPs long after most of it had slipped into the sea.


The constituency of Old Sarum returned two MPs (at one time one of them was the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder). There were seven electors, who were all under the control of one man. So effectively one man chose two MPs.


Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Sheffield did not have separate representation.


Philip Francis was elected MP for the borough of Appleby in 1802. There was only one vote cast and it was in his favour.


At Droitwich votes attached to properties rather than to persons. The shareholders in a dried up salt pit each had a vote.


44 per cent of the electors at Cambridge did not reside in the constituency. They were allowed to vote because they owned property in the constituency.


Gatton in Surrey returned two MPs. There were only six houses in the borough and they provided seven qualified voters. In an 1803 by-election only one person voted.


Seats were openly advertised for sale in newspapers.


At the very least voters expected to receive hospitality from the candidates.


At Andover in 1754 the winning candidate, Francis Delaval, showed his appreciation by arranging for 500 guineas to be fired into the crowd.


At Hertford in 1832 the electors accepted bribes from the Tory then elected the Whig. This caused outrage, not with the candidate who gave the bribes, but with the perfidious electors who could not be relied upon to do the right thing.


In the Irish borough of Cashel Henry Munster paid £30 to each of 25 of the town’s 26 butchers to secure their vote in the 1868 election.


In 1881 the Chester Bribery Commission reported that the Chester Conservatives had taken 2,281 persons on a picnic. They had only been charged a nominal amount for the refreshments. 

By Roger Mason 


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