At the present time (1972) the county of Somerset
is divided into six areas, each of which sends a member to Parliament. These
areas are called constituencies and contain approximately the same number of
people so as to ensure that each vote has the same value. With one exception,
North Somerset, they are named after the principal town in the area,
Bridgwater, Taunton, Wells, Weston-superMare and Yeovil. There is also a
separate constituency of Bath, which has a special status as a County Borough,
established by the Local Government Act of 1888. This system of parliamentary
representation is comparatively modern. It was brought about by a series of
Acts of Parliament, beginning with the Reform Act of 1832, which gradually
changed the old pattern and established the modern principles that all men and
women over the age of 18 years shall have the right to vote for their
representative in parliament and that all votes shall have an equal value.
The earliest parliaments consisted of a single 'house', the Great Council of the Realm, where the king's barons and the archbishops, bishops and greater abbots, could offer help and advice in the governing of the country. It was not until the thirteenth century that a second 'house' was established to seek the advice of more ordinary people. Since that time, Parliament has consisted of a House of Lords and a House of Commons, and it is with the latter that we are mainly concerned, When first established, the House of Commons represented communities rather than the individual electors of a geographical area. These communities were of two kinds: first, the Counties of England, representing the landowning or the agricultural interest, and second, some of the old-established towns, called boroughs, representing the trading and industrial, e.g. clothmaking, interest, Each county sent two members to Parliament. Elected by men who owned freehold land or property of the value of 40 shillings a year, they were known as Knights of the Shire or County Members. It must be remembered that when this was decided the value of money was much greater than it is today and the 40 shilling freeholders were at first quite well-to-do landowners, The counties continued to send their two members to Parliament from the time of the first meeting in 1254 until 1885. In Somerset, the two members elected by the freeholders were usually not great landowners but men from among the leading gentry who had had experience in county administration as sheriffs, commissioners or assessors. They regarded their work as a duty, rather than a privilege, and were rarely elected for more than one or two parliaments.
The borough representatives (two for each borough) were called burgesses-the word means a townsman-and were elected in a wide variety of ways. Though at first they were usually men who lived and worked in the town they represented, as time went on they were often men who were seeking an easy way of becoming MPs. These men were ready to use bribery or 'influence' to secure their election, and had little or no connection with the town they represented. From the time of the earliest parliaments of the reign of Edward I, to which the boroughs sent their representatives, it was never certain whether a town would be invited to send members or, if invited, whether it would be willing to incur the expense of the representatives' journey to Westminster. When parliament was held in other cities, such as York, Lincoln or even Carlisle, many towns declined the invitation. So, the list of Somerset parliamentary boroughs shows variations. The following towns, at some period, received writs, that is, invitations to select representatives for parliament: Axbridge, Bridgwater, Bath, Wells, Milborne Port, llchester, Watchet, Langport, Montacute, Weare, Chard. Taunton, Glastonbury, Dunster, Stogursey and Minehead. Some of these were represented in only one or two parliaments. The final list, which was established by the early seventeenth century and which lasted until the Reform Act of 1832, was as follows: Bath, Bridgwater, Ilchester, Milborne Port, Minehead, Taunton and Wells.
Just as there was no planned system of deciding which boroughs should be invited to send members to parliament, so there were no rules about how the members themselves were to be chosen by the boroughs. Each town evolved its own system. In some, all the townsmen were electors; in others, only the freemen or town councillors could vote; while a few, called 'pocket boroughs' were controlled by a local landowner, who could, and did, use his position and power to compel electors to vote as he wished. When voting was necessary it always took place in public, at the 'hustings', an open platform usually in the town centre. Elections sometimes went on for several days, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was great excitement and even rowdy behaviour, as the state of the poll was declared daily. This method continued until the Ballot Act of 1872 when all voting became secret.
The varying methods of electing MPs in Somerset boroughs until the reforms of the nineteenth century were as follows:
Bath The Mayor, Aldermen and Common Councillors chose the members. How far they were influenced by the wishes of the citizens will never be known.
Bridgwater The Town Council of 24 members chose the representatives until 1768, when all those paying a special tax-scot and lot- were allowed to vote. The town became so notorious for corrupt practices that it was deprived of its representation in 1869.
Ilminster The burgesses had the right to vote. This in effect meant all householders within the boundaries of the ancient town. Bribery and corruption were common, and elections were frequently challenged by petitions to Parliament.
Milborne Port The town officers and the inhabitants who paid 'scot and lot' had the right to vote. The officers included nine capital bailiffs and their two deputies as well as two commonalty stewards. Most of the town property, however, was owned by two families, the Medlycotts and the Walters, who had considerable influence over the electors.
Minehead All householders had the right to vote, but the town was part of the estate of the Luttrell family of Dunster. Considerable sums of money were spent in entertaining voters with banquets and great quantities of drink. Those who opposed the Luttrell candidates were threatened with eviction from their homes.
Taunton 'Potwallers' had the right to vote in Taunton. These were men living within the ancient boundaries of the town, having a hearth on which they cooked their food. Lodgers were included. but not those who had received alms or charity. This appears to be a democratic form of election, but it led to considerable corruption and bribery. There was no important local family with influence in the town.
Wells The mayor, masters and burgesses of the city had the right to vote. The masters were the senior officers of the craft guilds. As in the other parliamentary boroughs, there were frequent disputes about the qualifications of voters, as well as complaints about bribery.
It was to remedy the obvious abuses and unfairness of this system that a Reform Act was passed in 1832, after long debates. Feeling ran high throughout the country, and there were public meetings and processions of people in favour of reform. At Bristol there was serious rioting which had to be put down by troops. When the Act received the Royal Assent there was great rejoicing, and reform banquets were held in towns and cities throughout the land.
The Act had a considerable effect on the representation of the county of Somerset which was reduced from 16 to 13 M Ps, and the constituencies were greatly altered. Many counties including Somerset were given two additional members, and so two divisions were formed, East and West Somerset, with two members each. The boroughs were dealt with quite drastically. Minehead, Ilchester and Milborne Port were disfranchised, i.e. deprived of the right to return members to parliament. Bath, Bridgwater, Taunton and Wells each continued to return two members, and a new constituency, the town of Frome, returning one member, was established. By the terms of the Act, the boundaries of the ancient parliamentary boroughs were extended to include within the constituency the expanding suburban areas. The old and varied qualifications for voters were made uniform in the boroughs and the vote was given to the £10 householder. This meant that the ordinary worker did not qualify, and the vote was restricted to the fairly well-to-do middle class, who could afford to pay what was, at that time, a high rent.
The Whig government which passed this Act regarded it as a final settlement of the problem of reform. It proved to be only a beginning, and the demand grew for further reforms. In 1867, a Conservative government passed another Reform Act by which Somerset was given two additional members. The county constituencies were re-arranged into three divisions, East, Middle and West Somerset, each returning two members, and the city of Wells was disfranchised. Two years later, Bridgwater also was disfranchised, after investigations concerning bribery and corruption during the election of 1868. The Ballot Act of 1872 ensured that all voting should be in secret, and this helped greatly to stop attempts at bribery. One of the first elections after this act was at Taunton in 1873.
An Act of 1884 gave the right to vote to all men over the age of 21 years who were householders. Another Act in 1885 removed the old distinction between County and Borough representatives, and a new pattern of constituencies was worked out. Somerset then had seven parliamentary divisions, but Bath and Taunton still remained borough constituencies. In 1888 Bath became a County Borough, and is still a separate constituency, but in 1918 Taunton lost its ancient parliamentary status and became part of a county constituency to which it gave its name.
Early in the present century, at the end of the First World War, all men over 21 and women over the age of 30 were given the franchise, and in 1928, all women over 21 gained this right. Recently, in 1970, the age of qualification for voting was further reduced to 18 years. Thus, there is now a system by which all adults have the right to vote for their representatives in parliament and the votes are, as far as is possible in one-member-constituencies with a simple majoritv, equal in value.
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