In the century and a half before the Reform Act of 1832, and to some extent afterwards, the parliamentary history of Devon well illustrates the oddity and corruption of the old system. To the seven ancient boroughs represented in the later Middle Ages, another five were added in Tudor and Stuart times, making a total of twenty-four borough members, besides the two ‘knights of the shire’. The latter were drawn exclusively from a small group of leading County families; but borough representation was manipulated by the Whig or Tory party machines, and no longer in any real sense represented the towns in whose names the Members sat. Many ‘burgesses’ were not even Devon men, let alone inhabitants of the towns in question.
The right to elect varied immensely from borough to borough. In Exeter all resident freeholders, as well as men admitted to the ‘freedom’ of the city, had a vote, and there were about 1200 of them. Barnstaple also had a burgess electorate of some 600, and Honiton gave the franchise to any resident who ‘boiled his own pot’. Between them, these three accounted for two-thirds of the entire voting strength of the Devon boroughs: and since there were too many voters to be controlled, they had to be bribed. The inhabitants of Honiton, in particular, made a comfortable income out of selling their votes, though on one occasion they were disappointed. Lord Cochrane stood for election, declaring his refusal to bribe, and so found hardly any supporters; but these he richly rewarded after the poll. Next time he stood again, with the same declaration: but the electors of Honiton, expecting the same treatment, gave him a comfortable majority-on which he thanked them and left.
Elsewhere the number of voters was much smaller, and sometimes minute. Bere Alston and Tavistock, where votes were confined respectively to holders by burgage tenure and to freeholders by inheritance, mustered about fifty electors apiece and were prime examples of ‘pocket boroughs’. They provided, in Strode and Pym, two of the famous Five Members of 1642.
Dartmouth, Totnes, Plympton and Plymouth confined the vote to ‘freemen’, and admission to this distinction could be controlled by the Corporation or the local party manager. There were some 40 voters in Dartmouth, 60 in Totnes, 100 in Plympton, and little over 200 even in Plymouth. At Tiverton the Mayor and Corporation, who numbered 25 in all and filled vacancies in their ranks without reference to the townsmen, nominated the Members. Okehampton and Ashburton had a freeholder franchise, and mustered about 550 votes between them; but here the creation of ‘faggots’ – bogus freeholders, with title deeds supplied before the poll and returned after voting – could decide the result. Over the whole county, there were some 140 voters for each borough seat -and apart from the three largest electorates, only about 60.
The 1832 Reform Act was far less sweeping than is sometimes supposed, and its importance lay mainly in setting a precedent for further reform. Instead of redistributing seats according to population, it only tinkered with the old system to the extent of disfranchising the tinier, boroughs and distributing the seats thus vacated to some of the larger new towns. Bere Alston, Plympton and Okehampton lost both Members, and Ashburton and Dartmouth one each, while Devonport was given two. Giving the vote to all holders of substantial borough houses swamped the most corrupt of the old electorates; but voting remained open for another forty years, and bribery and intimidation continued. At Honiton an extension of boundary gave the lord of the manor control of one seat, and Tomes kept up its tradition of bought elections, till both places were disfranchised in 1867.
The Act of 1832 left Devon with twenty-two members, including four from County divisions, but that of 1867 cut the total to seventeen. The old over-representation of boroughs, as against the countryside, was further reduced as the town seats fell to eleven and the County divisions rose to six; but not till 1885 was a clean sweep made and constituencies rearranged according to population. Of the then thirteen Devon Members, eight represented the divisions, and five the boroughs. At the same time, giving the vote to all male heads of household enfranchised farm labourers, and at last established the principle that Parliament should represent people as distinct from property. Later years saw the extension of the vote to all men over twenty-one and women over thirty in 1918, to women over twenty-one in 1928, and to all over eighteen 40 years later, The post-war growth of Plymouth has resulted in its having three seats, while Exeter and Torquay (now Torbay) have one each and there are five County divisions.