It is fair to say that Gatton was one of the most rotten of the rotten boroughs, every bit as undemocratic as the more infamous boroughs of the time (Old Sarum, Newtown or Bramber). The following factors are pertinent:
- As with the other pocket boroughs, the nominees were in the pocket of its owner, either by gift or for sale, and whose election could be virtually guaranteed as a result of the few voters being nearly always dependent on the owner.
- But Gatton never was a borough in the sense of being a town of reasonable size. At least Dunwich, Suffolk, and Newtown, Isle of Wight, for example had once been well populated towns.
- Of the 14 seats in Surrey, Guildford, Haslemere, Gatton, Reigate and Bletchingley with a combined electorate of about 600 sent 10 MPs to the Commons, while Surrey county and Southwark together sent 4 MPs with a combined electorate of around 6,000. The larger market towns of the time, Kingston and Croydon - and Lambeth - had no representation other than the county’s.
- Gatton’s electoral criteria had been occasionally changed at the connivance or whim of the Commons (e.g. a woman in 1553, Lord Treasurer [Burghley] 1584-1597, an outsider in 1628 but a convicted recusant in 1640, and a member of the Dublin parliament 1774-1784).
- In terms of its number of eligible voters, Gatton consistently had the least.
That many of Gatton’s MPs were rotters didn’t make Gatton any worse than the other pocket boroughs where seats could be bought by the power hungry men of the time.
In 1830 King William IV asked Lord Grey to form a Whig administration which was bound to propose parliamentary reform. At the same time William Cobbett published his Rural rides in which he described Gatton as “a very rascally spot of earth”, since Gatton then consisted of only 23 dwellings and some seven voters for the two MPs, Sir John Shelley and John Hope, put up by the young Lord Monson.
Early next year the first Reform Bill was defeated, and Sir John Shelley echoed Peel in considering the proposal tantamount to passing control to ‘mobs & demagogues rather than wise & prudent men’. Grey got the King to dissolve Parliament at the end of April 1831 so that Gatton’s MPs had only held that role for 9 months, a poor return from their perspective.
So, in July 1831 Monson put up his cousin, John Saville and a friend, John Ashley Cooper, both sons of Earls. Elsewhere, Lord Grey secured his increased majority and introduced a second Reform Bill. On 22nd September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill by 345 to 236. However, the Tories still dominated the House of Lords, and after a long debate the bill was defeated 199 to 158. Riots in Derby & Nottingham followed 8-10 October, and a more devastating riot in Bristol 29-31st October 1831.
Having got the King’s consent to appointing more Whig peers in January, a new Bill was presented and duly passed by the Commons in March 1832 by 355 to 239. But the Lords’ amendment in May postponed disenfranchisement. On 7th May 1832, Grey met the king and asked him to create 50 -60 new Whig peers. William IV was now having doubts and refused, accepting the Government’s resignation.
On 10th May, the King asked the Duke of Wellington to form a new, Tory, government. But it was impossible to do so when it was in opposition to the views of the vast majority of the people in Britain (Robert Peel argued that if the King and Wellington went ahead with their plan there was a strong danger of a civil war in Britain).
On 15th May Wellington advised the King to recall Grey, which he did with authority to create the necessary number of peers. Faced with this, the Lords agreed to pass the Reform Act though Lord Monson was one of 22 “stalwart” peers to still oppose the Bill 106 to 22.
Once it became the Reform Act, it thus swept away Gatton’s parliamentary borough status, along with many other similar seats like Bletchingley & Haslemere. Reigate lost one of its seats, a new borough of Lambeth was created in Surrey, and large and wealthy towns like Birmingham and Manchester were finally represented.
In the 1832 election, the total number of people who voted in the United Kingdom was 827,748:
Curiously, in the 1835 election, the total number of people who voted in the United Kingdom was only 611,182:
Therefore there was a 25% overall decrease in the number of people who participated in this election. On the face of it the abolition of the rotten boroughs had not increased democracy. Yet without it, the more significant Reform Act of 1867 could never have happened. The 1832 total voters figure was not exceeded until 1868 and further progress in providing voting secrecy and extending the franchise followed thereafter.