Up to 1832, and since Elizabeth I’s time, Dorset sent 20 members to Parliament – 18 borough members, and two for the County. It would hardly be true to say that these ‘represented’ either the boroughs or the shire: they were in fact nearly all members or servants of great landed families, and many did not live in Dorset. It was quite common for the chief land— owners of the opposing Whig and Tory parties to agree to take one each of the county seats, and frequently elections were not held at all. Similar arrangements were sometimes made in the boroughs, and by the nineteenth century it was exceptional for a town to be represented by one of its own inhabitants.
In the boroughs the right to vote varied, and was often in dispute. The most common qualification was the payment of ‘scot and lot’ (town rates), which applied in Bridport, Shaftesbury, Corfe Castle, Wareham, and Dorchester. At the last place outsiders who owned property in the borough could vote if they paid church and poor rates on it. The combined borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, with its four members, had a freeholder franchise. Each voter could vote for four candidates; the two with the most votes were regarded as members for Weymouth, and the next two for Melcombe. Freehold occupiers also qualified at Wareham, and this gave rise to one of the favourite election dodges of the time. A genuine freeholder would hand out title deeds to fragments of his property, creating bogus ‘freeholders’ who returned the deeds as soon as they had voted. At Lyme and Poole the vote was restricted to freemen, resident or not, and by this time the Mayor and council could grant or withhold the freedom as they thought fit. The Poole ratepayers tried, but failed, to establish their right to ‘scot and lot’ voting.
The Reform Act of 1832 partially redistributed seats throughout the country, but it did not sweep away the bribery and corrupt practices which lasted as long as voting was open. Nor did it re-allot seats according to population. It simply disfranchised existing boroughs with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, and took one seat from those with under 4,000, distributing the places made vacant to a sprinkling of large new industrial towns. Corfe lost both members, Wareham, Lyme, and Shaftesbury one, and Weymouth’s four were reduced to two. With one extra county member, this brought Dorset’s representation down to 14 – which was still too generous in proportion to population. The Act of 1867 was more drastic, since by this time the claims of thickly-populated industrial areas could no longer be treated lightly. Lyme was disfranchised, and the rest reduced to one member, so that the total fell to 9. Not till 1885, however, was a clean sweep made of the relics of the old system and seats allotted entirely according to population. All borough constituencies disappeared, to be merged in four county Divisions. This lasted till in 1948 Poole – much enlarged in area as well as population – was made a separate constituency.
The Act of 1885 reduced the Dorset seats to 4 in place of the earlier 20, but at the same time it gave voting rights to the agricultural worker and made the four more representative than the twenty had ever been.