Old Sarum


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the burgage holders

Estimated number qualified to vote:

less than 11


[of Stratford under the Castle parish]: 385 (1821); 374 (1831)


17 July 1820JOSIAS DU PRE ALEXANDER vice Crawford, vacated his seat
2 Apr. 1828STRATFORD CANNING vice Josias Du Pré Alexander, vacated his seat

Main Article

In his radical youth, Robert Southey* wrote an inscription for a proposed monument at Old Sarum:

          Reader, if thou canst boast the noble name
          Of Englishman, it is enough to know
          Thou standest in Old Sarum. But, if chance,
          ‘Twas thy misfortune in some other land,
          Inheritor of slavery, to be born,
          Read and be envious! Dost thou see yon hut,
          Its old mud mossy walls with many a patch
          Spotted? Know, foreigner! so wisely well
          In England it is order’d, that the laws
          Which bind the people, from themselves should spring;
          Know that the dweller in that little hut,
          That wretched hovel, to the senate sends
          Two delegates. Think, foreigner, where such
          An individual’s rights, how happy all!

Southey, who became poet laureate in 1813, subsequently defended the existing representative system with great vehemence. His writings are just one illustration of how Old Sarum could be depicted both as the quintessential rotten borough of justly renowned infamy, and as an exemplar of a legitimate system of virtual representation.

Old Sarum lay in the parish of Stratford under the Castle, in the hundred of Underditch, near the modern city of Salisbury. Southey’s sole resident was, of course, fictitious, for the burgage tenements had long been deserted. The Times reported, 27 July 1830, that the borough

consists at present of a large circular mound of earth, surmounted in the centre by a smaller mound. Some bushes grow upon the top, and a flourishing crop of wheat and barley occupies the situation of the former rampart, but there is no house nor vestige of a house.

It was accorded various dismissive epithets, for example ‘haystacks or pigsties’, ‘a thorn bush’, ‘four square stones and a pot-house’, and ‘ruins’.1 In the House, the words ‘mounds’ and ‘ditches’ were sufficient to identify the borough during the reform debates. Yet in one sense Southey was right because, as radical publications always pointed out, there was effectively only one elector, the absentee proprietor. Since 1802 this had been the 2nd earl of Caledon of Caledon Castle, county Tyrone, whose nominees generally supported administration and could be said to have represented the mercantile and colonial interests of India.2 Thus, at the general election of 1820 he again brought in his cousins, the East India merchant James Alexander, who had first been elected in 1812, and another Ulsterman, Arthur Johnston Crawford, who had sat since 1818.

In 1817 Caledon had agreed to exchange his various properties in Stratford, ‘except such parts thereof as constitute what is usually called and understood to be burgage land’, for Alexander’s estate at Great Bounds, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent.3 After further negotiations, the two arranged, 15 July 1820, that Alexander would buy the 11 burgages and ‘all the other the burgage messuages tenements lands and hereditaments whatsoever and every part and parcel thereof situate lying and being within the said borough’ for £41,675. With the assistance of his brother Josias Du Pré Alexander, who became a director of the East India Company that year, he arranged for the money to be paid by instalments, and had presumably settled the debt within three years, as planned.4 Josias, who immediately displaced Crawford as Member, had some claim to share the nomination with his brother, but it was apparently James who was the effective patron, though this role was later sometimes still credited to Caledon.5 Under the new proprietor, leases continued to be granted to trusted tenants for the duration of the poll only, by the bailiff and returning officer, William Boucher of Thornhill House, near Stalbridge, Dorset and The Close, Salisbury (who was also Lord Radnor’s agent for Downton and Salisbury).6 In answer to one of the home office circulars, he wrote, with some disingenuousness, that ‘the burgage houses having fallen into decay, the occupiers of the lands within the borough reside in houses more convenient for their purpose within the parish of Stratford, belonging to the owners of such lands’.7 Estimates of the actual number of electors varied, and although seven was the figure usually quoted, it may on occasion have been as low as two or three, which perhaps included the Members.8

The Alexanders, both silent supporters of the Liverpool administration, returned themselves at the general election of 1826, when one local paper commented sarcastically that ‘no contest was anticipated; the voters are so numerous, and the period of return so limited, that an individual canvass was impossible, and the worthy candidates were desirous of exhibiting no symptoms of partiality’.9 In March 1828 Josias withdrew in favour of a cousin of the recently dead prime minister, the diplomat Stratford Canning. He recorded that

I was indebted for the seat to my father-in-law, Mr. Alexander, who jointly with his brother, the East India director, possessed the nomination at Old Sarum. I cannot say that I was much attracted by the honour of representing the rottenest borough on the list. But several considerations pleaded in its favour. The seat was free of expense; it had been occupied by the best of patriots, Lord Chatham; it bound me to no party; and, whether I was the Member or not, it would still be a close borough ... My constituents were 11 in number. They voted in obedience to their landlord. Not one of them did I ever see.10

He cannot, therefore, have attended the by-election ‘farce’ when, according to one account, there were only nine people present. These included Boucher, James Alexander’s partner Edward Fletcher, who proposed Canning; Henry Porcher*, another partner, who seconded him, and Charles Dashwood Bruce, James’s stepson and another member of the family’s East Indian agency.11 Canning, who soon resumed his career abroad, tended towards opposition at this time, and his replacement by Josias at the general election of 1830 was counted as a government gain in Charles Ross’s* summary of the results.12

Old Sarum, William Cobbett’s† ‘accursed hill’, had long been a target for reformers, and calls for its abolition, either as part of an extensive alteration of the system of representation, or in exchange for the enfranchisement of one of the populous northern industrial towns, were commonplace.13 Its defenders often justified its existence on the grounds of the prescription and utility of rotten boroughs. Canning, a determined opponent of parliamentary reform, said on Lord John Russell’s motion, 25 Apr. 1822, that

Old Sarum, and other boroughs, at which the finger of scorn is pointed, are not more under private patronage now than at the periods the most glorious in our history. Some of them are still in the possession of the descendants of the same patrons who held them at the period of the Revolution. Yet in spite of Old Sarum, the Revolution was accomplished, and the house of Hanover seated on the throne. In spite of Old Sarum, did I say? No, rather by the aid of Old Sarum and similar boroughs; for the House has heard it admitted by the noble mover himself, that if the House of Commons of that day had been a reformed House of Commons, the benefits of the Revolution would never have been obtained.

Others based its legitimacy not on notions of virtual representation as such, but on the effective working of the constitution in practice. Lord Francis Leveson Gower told the Commons, 27 Apr. 1826, that

I do not profess to discover any hidden link uniting the cotton mills of Manchester, or the navies which ride in the ports of London and Liverpool, with the boroughs of Gatton and Old Sarum; but I say, that, at least, the existence of the latter has proved no obstacle to the prosperity of which I have chosen the former as the symbol and representative.

The credibility of such arguments became increasingly weak, and the Ultra Lord Blandford, eldest son of the 5th duke of Marlborough, asked the House, 2 June 1829, on his motion for reform

Can there be anything more monstrous ... than that seven electors, headed by the parish constable (I allude to Gatton), should send two honourable Members to this House; and that two more should represent the interesting ruins and well-peopled sheepfolds of Sarum?

The borough would have been disfranchised by his bill, introduced the following year, when an anonymous correspondent suggested to the duke of Wellington, the prime minister, that

if representatives were given to Manchester, Birmingham, etc., and the laughing stock of allowing two Members to represent the clump of trees and heap of stones at Old Sarum, making one Member suffice for the virtuous borough of Gatton ‘et omne hoc genus’, all clamour would cease.14

Even those who were only, at most, moderate reformers might have accepted this last argument in favour of limited reform.

Russell’s statement of the Grey ministry’s reform proposals, 1 Mar. 1831, which of course went far beyond this, placed Old Sarum among the boroughs to be totally disfranchised. Explaining the principle behind the schedules, Russell argued that

because Old Sarum sent Members to Parliament in the reign of Edward III when it had a population to be benefited by it, we follow the principles of our ancestors by taking away that franchise, now that it has no population, and bestowing it where there is a population.

In the debate that followed, Lord Ebrington lent his support to Russell’s view, but the Tories Sir Robert Inglis and Sir Robert Peel, the former home secretary, defended the long-established claims of proprietors and stressed the peaceful history of the country, to which such boroughs had contributed. Matthias Attwood argued that the sitting Members effectively represented the important interests of the City, and Winthrop Mackworth Praed praised the practical utility of the existing franchise, though he admitted that it was ‘manifestly absurd that Leeds, for instance, should have no representative of its immense interests, and that Old Sarum shall have its two Members to die in its one ditch’. Sir Thomas Denman, the attorney-general, raising the threat that the king might cease to issue writs for seats like Old Sarum, 22 Mar., asked rhetorically, ‘what would it be worth in such a case, although the proprietor may have given £40,000 for the right of returning Members for that borough?’ The Alexanders were condemned as ‘High Tory’ boroughmongers in a Parliamentary Candidate Society pamphlet, dated 31 Mar. 1831.15

Before the general election of 1831 it was reported that

the old elm tree, under which the marquee has been erected for ages past [for the duration of each election], has been cut down. The limbs have been carried today through Salisbury: they appeared to be sound, but the tree itself (like the present system) was found to be ‘rotten to the core’.

Another paper, denying the truth of this anecdote, gave a spurious account of how

at an early hour, the streets and thoroughfares of the old city were thronged with the inhabitants, eager to pay their respects to their late beloved Members. The bells rang merrily from the church towers, gay banners streamed from the various eminences and all bore the appearance of a high day of festival.

A group of reformers did actually attempt to witness the election, but they arrived too late, the sitting Members, who both voted consistently against reform, having been returned at nine o’clock in the morning in order to avoid any disturbances.16 Yet the occasion was witnessed by John Lambert, a civil servant, who recalled that

a circumstance which added to the absurdity of the event was the application made by a wag, who, introducing himself to the returning officer as the representative of the London press, requested to be informed of the state of the poll!17

In the House, 26 July 1831, the Alexanders were defended as respectable and independent by Sir Charles Forbes and Robert Cutlar Fergusson. There was no substantial discussion, and although both Forbes and Attwood argued that its abolition amounted to a breach of the constitution, Old Sarum’s disfranchisement was unanimously agreed that day. Its fate did not, thereafter, intrude much into the debates on the bill, though Inglis referred to the Members, 19 Mar. 1832, when he asserted that the

property belonging to the constituency of that place amounts to at least a million and a half. Will it be said after this, that the burgage tenures of this place ought not to be considered entitled to a share in the representation in consequence of their wealth? I am sure, if the amount of the assessed taxes paid by these gentlemen were taken, it would exceed the amount paid in some of the noble lord’s new boroughs.

Yet, since Stratford parish had only 63 houses, of which 13 were worth £10 a year or more, and the borough itself paid only £12 in assessed taxes for the year ending April 1831, it remained in schedule A and, symbolically enough, headed the final list of condemned boroughs.18

Old Sarum, which had experienced very few contests (the last in 1751), had been an extreme example of a rotten borough for almost its entire representative history. It was duly disfranchised by the Reform Act in 1832, when Stratford parish was subsumed into the enlarged borough of Wilton.19 Its demise was greeted with a variety of mock funeral imagery, such as the transparency of a tomb inscribed ‘to the memory of the borough of Old Sarum, which died, June the 7th 1832, aged 700 years’, that was displayed at the Salisbury reform festival, and the ‘Lament for Old Sarum’ which appeared in The Times. A coin issued to mark the passage of the Act, included a view of the bare countryside and an inscription, ‘Deserted in the year 1217, disfranchised June 7 1832’. Late the following year, great joy was expressed at the report that the ‘Parliament Tree’, an ‘oak, sacred to liberty, religion and Toryism’, had been uprooted in a storm, by which it was ‘evident that the last branch of the old system has been blown away’.20 It actually survived until 1905, and a fragment of wood in Dorset Record Office purports to be ‘part of the tree under which the Members of Old Sarum were chosen before the reform bill’.21 The borough’s passing was regretted by a crazed individual, who resembled Southey’s hermit (and may have been Boucher, who died, 1 Aug. 1836, aged 83).22 Thomas Mozley, one of the leaders of the Oxford movement, described how, having once officiated at Stratford, he noticed ‘a bright-looking old fellow, with a full rubicund face and a profusion of white hair’, who

hung behind, waiting for me. He expressed his warm approval of the daily service. When people had nothing else to do, they could not do better than say prayers. For his part his work was over and he was proud of it. He had been the borough of Old Sarum, and had returned two representatives to Parliament for 40 years, all honest men and gentlemen, not the sort of fellows they were sending to Parliament ‘in these days’.23

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. Full View of Commons (1821), 4; Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 30 May 1825; Salisbury Jnl. 4 Oct. 1830; Pigot’s Commercial Dir. (1830), 810.
  • 2. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 425, 426.
  • 3. PRO NI, Caledon mss D2433/B/4/1/48-89 (NRA 13276).
  • 4. Ibid. 4/1/95, 102-6; Sir R.C. Hoare, Wilts. Salisbury, 603.
  • 5. The Times, 27 July 1830, 2 Aug.; Spectator, 1 Jan. 1831.
  • 6. Caledon mss 4/1/5, 44, 96; Wilts. RO, Radnor mss 490/1375, Boucher to Radnor, 3 May 1831; T.J. Northy, Popular Hist. Old and New Sarum, 69, 70; VCH Wilts. vi. 66, 67.
  • 7. PP (1830-1), x. 100.
  • 8. Peep at Commons (1820), 13; Extraordinary Red Bk. (1821), 42.
  • 9. Devizes Gazette, 15 June 1826.
  • 10. S. Lane-Poole, Life of Stratford Canning, ii. 2.
  • 11. Devizes Gazette, 10 Apr. 1828.
  • 12. Add. 40401, f. 132.
  • 13. Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, ii. 363, 379, 380; Oldfield, Rep. Hist. (1816), v. 218.
  • 14. Wellington mss WP1/1159/3.
  • 15. BL, Place Newspaper Collection 63/2.
  • 16. Devizes Gazette, 28 Apr.; Salisbury Jnl. 2 May; Bath and Cheltenham Gazette, 10 May 1831.
  • 17. J. Lambert, Modern Legislation as Chapter in our Hist. 6.
  • 18. PP (1831-2), xxxvi. 32, 33, 201.
  • 19. Ibid. (1831-2), xl. 119, 120; (1835), xxiv. 739.
  • 20. Keenes’ Bath Jnl. 2 July; The Times, 9 June 1832; 10 Sept. 1833; P. Hall, Brief Hist. Old and New Sarum (1834), 1; L. Brown, Cat. British Historical Medals, i. 1588.
  • 21. H. de S. Shortt, Old Sarum (1965), 28; Dorset RO, Kaines mss D391/5.
  • 22. Gent. Mag. (1836), ii. 332.
  • 23. T. Mozley, Reminiscences, ii. 12, 13.