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A borough was “a town possessing a municipal corporation and special privileges conferred by royal charter” (Oxford English Dictionary). Among these privileges, boroughs had the right to send representatives to Parliament. No new boroughs had been chartered in England since the 17th century (Corey 371). As the nation aged, its population and industry changed, creating a disparity between the nation's demographics and its system of governmental representation. With the advent and unrestrained growth of the Industrial Revolution, population and wealth concentrated and massed in northern towns and cities. While seats in Parliament remained occupied by representatives from the antiquated boroughs, "no provisions were made to represent the growing commercial and professional classes" (Corey 372).
In some cases, boroughs had become severely degraded due to poverty, depopulation, or even natural disasters. “Another ancient borough, Dunwhich, had for centuries been buried under the North sea,” that sea-side town having long since given way to erosion (Hughes 84). Such boroughs were considered “rotten,” as they were effectively controlled by one town corporation or large land-owner, as only the propertied upper class was eligible to vote. Such aristocrats often controlled their constituents' votes by bribery and coercion (Corey 372). For example, see William Makepeace Thackeray's installment novel, Vanity Fair. Thackeray uses “Queen's Crawley” to represent a “rotten” borough.
The 1832 Reform Bill enfranchised lawyers, factory owners, merchants, and other members of the middle class, stipulating as a requirement at least a rental lease of at least fifty pounds per year (Bloy). In addition, fifty-six old boroughs were abolished, their Parliamentary seats redistributed among some new boroughs and counties, somewhat more appropriate to population demographics (Corey 372). Not all of the rotten boroughs were eliminated at this point, however.
Widespread enfranchisement occurred slowly, as successive acts made their way through Parliament during the Victorian age. The 1867 Reform Bill lowered the stipulations to five pounds per annum for leaseholders, adding approximately one million voters. The subsequent Reform Bill of 1885 added two million voters to the electorate by enfranchising households in the counties as well (Hughes 84).
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Bloy, Margie. "Terms of the 1832 Reform Act." Retrieved from http://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/landow/victorian/history/reform2.html. Retrieved 11/9/04.
Corey, Melinda, and George Ochoa. The Encyclopedia of the Victorian World. HenryHolt and Company. New York. 1996.
Hughes, Kristine. The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England. Writer's Digest Books. Cincinnati. 1998.
Mitchell, Sally, Ed. Victorian Britain, An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York. 1988.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1989.