Thursday, December 05, 2013

Bishop's Castle: "That despicable mass of rottenness"

I once wrote in my House Points column for the much-missed Liberal Democrat News:
The steep main street of Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire runs from the site of the long-vanished castle down to a church with a Norman tower. 
At the top of that street is a collection of fine Georgian houses. When you discover how they were paid for, you realise there is nothing new about political corruption. 
Before the Great Reform Act of 1832 Bishop’s Castle was a notorious rotten borough. Despite having fewer than a hundred electors for much of its history, the town returned two MPs. (There were worse cases: Old Sarum – a hilltop above Salisbury – had two MPs and no residents at all.) 
Not surprisingly, this situation led to corruption. But it did not take the form we generally imagine when we think of the elections of past centuries. This was not a case of candidates plying voters with free drink and then dragging them off to the polls. 
Instead, the electors of Bishop’s Castle realised their votes were of great value to would-be MPs and sold them for hard cash.
Which is why, in an 1832 article welcoming the Great Reform Act, the Spectator described the town as "that despicable mass of rottenness".

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