When East Anglian politics was really 'rotten'

Ian CollinsMany reckon politics today is a murky business but past polls could be truly rotten. In the first of a series on East Anglia's electoral history, Ian Collins charts the scandal of pocket boroughs.Ian Collins

Many reckon politics today is a murky business but past polls could be truly rotten. In the first of a series on East Anglia's electoral history, Ian Collins charts the scandal of pocket boroughs.

Medieval East Anglia was rich and mighty but then came a seachange. Though key bits had long since toppled into water, their ancient powerbase was not swept away until 1832.

Castle Rising, Dunwich, Aldeburgh and Orford were impressive ports and market centres - with fine churches and even castles to prove it - before tides turned. And then as they shrank over the centuries, being variously drowned or land-locked, they continued to send two MPs apiece to unreformed parliaments.

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Here minuscule majorities could be bought - and would very often be fought over. At the same time there were riots in the sprawling cities of the Industrial Revolution which went virtually unrepresented.

These rotten boroughs were often in the pocket of aristocrats (the Duke of Norfolk pocketing 11 nationwide). They put in sons or cronies to represent their interests in the Commons.

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No wonder that - from painter Hogarth to cartoonist Cruikshank - the Georgian era was the golden age of political satire.

Castle Rising, near King's Lynn, became the sum of four small parishes (with North Wootton, South Wootton and Roydon) but played a large part in our political history.

For six years to 1679 one of its MPs was diarist and naval reformer Samuel Pepys who then jumped ship to more prestigious Harwich.

A decade later the constituency with precious few (but very pricey) constituents favoured a young Norfolk squire named Robert Walpole who was to become our first and longest-serving Prime Minister, governing corruptly but most effectively from 1721 to 1742.

Dunwich was contested in the 18th century, always bitterly and often violently, by three families - Downing, Barne and Vanneck.

Originally from Beccles, the Downing clan left two national memorials. One was Downing Street, built as a speculative venture by the first baronet from 1680 (only numbers 10, 11 and 12 survive as the official bases of the Prime Minister, chancellor and chief whip). The other was the Cambridge college.

The third Sir George Downing began buying property and political power in Dunwich. With as few as a dozen 'insetter' freemen entitled to vote - at an election meeting after a drunken feast and a round of payments - 'outsetter' voters were added among farmers and merchants from all over Suffolk. It cost a packet.

Defeated as a Whig in Cambridge, Sir George the third was then returned in Dunwich as a Tory. He could not afford to let political principles stand in the way of his business interests.

Outmanoeuvred by Whigs Colonel Charles Long and Field Marshal Sir Robert Rich in the 1714 election following Queen Anne's death, he tried to get the freemen jailed for non-payment of taxes.

Ironically the jail and town hall were lost to another storm tide as Sir George was busy buying up what remained of the village, recruiting more outsetters and switching parties again. He and his placeman were rewarded with a landslide victory - by 30 votes to 10 - in the election of 1722.

Then he pressed his tenants to sign bonds invoking huge penalties if they voted against him in future. Since few could read, most had no idea what they were marking with their Xs.

To recoup part of his outlay Sir George Downing sold the second seat at each election - accepting �1,200 from Miles Barne, owner of the Sotterley estate near Beccles, just before his death. His heir, Sir Jacob, duly returned in a by-election, informed the payee that the poll pact would not be renewed.

Mr Barne then allied with banker Sir Joshua Vanneck, lately installed at Heveningham Hall, and on the death of the autocratic Sir Jacob beat his widow's nominee by 13 votes to two.

Lady Margaret Downing, hearing the by-election result on the day she buried her husband, had the 13 traitors jailed. The Barne and Vanneck camp funded bail and a three-year court case which finally went in their favour.

Orford - with only 22 voters by 1831 - provided an early billet for Viscount Castlereagh who committed suicide when a hugely unpopular Prime Minister (and being blackmailed for homosexuality) in 1822.

To the last the case against any reform was led by the Duke of Wellington. The arch-reactionary victor of Waterloo had held the rotten borough of Trim in the Irish Parliament before elevation to the British House of Lords.

His high Tory attempt to hold back the tide of popular pressure nearly caused a revolution. Amid national uproar, the Whig Earl Grey steered through the Great Reform Act which abolished the worst 57 rotten boroughs - including our quaint East Anglian quartet - and extended the franchise to one in six adult males in a population of 14m.

As Britain advanced slowly but steadily towards a democracy, Norfolk and Suffolk never again returned a Prime Minister.

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