Gatton has never been more than a collection of a few buildings on a hillock a couple of miles north east of Reigate Surrey, England. Yet for over 300 years Gatton returned a couple of members of Parliament on the vote of a single landowner and a few of his qualifying tenants.
It was one of many such parliamentary boroughs, politely called “pocket boroughs” because they were in the pocket of a few rich and powerful gentry, or less politely “rotten boroughs” by those desperate for democratic reform.
Gatton was not unusual and indeed two other pocket boroughs, Reigate and Bletchingley, were close neighbours. The history of the House of Commons is not linear but decidedly bumpy: Its authority varied with weak or strong monarchs and for a long time it represented an oligarchy and then a plutocracy, before the first step towards reform abolished such “boroughs” as Gatton and paved the way for later reforms to establish a more widely representative democracy.
So, what sort of people would stand – or pay to be “elected” – on this basis? Gatton provides a good example of the wide range of owner/members of such parliamentary seats, attracting the greedy more than the principled. Nevertheless, the story of Gatton as a parliamentary borough is part of a wider history of how a government can eventually reform itself with minimal bloodshed. This is a remarkable tale and one that still has lessons for us today.
This essay was originally the basis of a presentation to The Merstham Society in February 2009 by A. B. de M. Hunter, author of Gentlemen of Merstham & Gatton.
Sources: Gentlemen of Merstham & Gatton A. B. de M. Hunter
A History of Constitutional Reform James Murdoch
The Constitutional History of Modern Britain Sir David Lindsay Keir
History of Parliament: The Commons 5 volumes 1509 – 1820, S.T. Bindoff, P.W. Hasler, B. D. Henning, R. Sedgewick & R. G. Thorne