Yorkshire Parliamentary Representation

Yorkshire Parliamentary Representation

Before the great reform of Parliament in 1832, Yorkshire, compared with, say, Wiltshire, had less than its fair share of members in the House of Commons. One of the many reasons for this was that, when Parliament began, much of Yorkshire, which later became densely-populated mining or manufacturing country, was desolate, scantily-peopled moorland. The allocation of Members of Parliament which was more or less just in 1625 had become shockingly out of proportion long before 1832.

Yorkshire's Parliamentary Representation
Yorkshire’s Parliamentary Representation

Not only was the total number of Yorkshire members much below the county’s Parliamentary  fair share, but they were not equitably distributed within the shire. Tiny, ancient boroughs like Hedon and Borougbbridge had two members each, while great trading or manufacturing towns like Bradford and Sheffield were not represented at all. Up to 1822 Yorkshire had 30 members—two from each of 14 ancient towns and two knights of the shire. (Yorkshire counted as only one shire, though the West Riding alone was larger than the next English county in point of size—Lincolnshire.) In 1822 the county was allocated two additional members for the shire, so that in 1832 York and Yorkshire had 32 members in all.

Yorkshire had sent up its two knights even before Simon de Montfort’s time. York City sent its members to Simon’s first Parliament in 1265. Several other boroughs were enfranchised before the end of Edward I’s reign, though some of them allowed their representation to lapse, and recovered it only in Tudor times. In most medieval Parliaments the only Yorkshire members sitting were those for the county, and those for York, Hull and Scarborough. Pickering, Tickhill and Yarm appear as boroughs for a brief period in 1295; Ravenser for a short time after 1300; Doncaster and Whitby in 1337. Even in Tudor times Yorkshire felt a sense of grievance at its under-representation in Parliament. It is interesting to note that, among the demands of the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 (Chapter 10), was the holding of a Parliament at York, with representation for Beverley, Pontefract, Richmond, Skipton and Wakefield. Within the next eighty years all these boroughs except Skipton and Wakefield were in fact enfranchised. Until the late 17th century, in theory at any rate, the king might enfranchise any borough be pleased. In Catholic and conservative Yorkshire, the Protestant Edward VI gave representation to only one new borough. His Catholic half-sister, Mary I, called up M.P.s from four—Thirsk, Ripon, Boroughbridge and Knaresborough. All these are set out on illustration 144.


Hedon did not return members regularly until Edward VI’s reign, in 1547. Boroughbridge, Knaresborough, Ripon and Thirsk began regularly under Mary I in 1553; Aldborougb in 1558; Beverley in 1559; Richmond in 1584 and Pontefract in 1621. The last Yorkshire boroughs to be re-enfranchised were Malton and Northallerton, both in 1640. In Cromwell’s Parliaments of 1654 and 1656, the Ridings were given four or six members each and Leeds and Halifax each granted one. Richard Cromwell’s Parliament of 1658 went back to the old scheme: two members for the county; two for each of the ancient boroughs (and none for Leeds and Halifax). The representation of Yorkshire, apart from the increase of two members in 1822, was made on this plan until the reformed Parliament, after the Act of 1832.

Apart from the county members, and those sitting for the towns of York and Hull, hardly one of the rest of the 32 Yorkshire members was honestly elected. Most of the Yorkshire boroughs were ‘pocket boroughs’, in the hands of local noblemen or gentlemen (their ‘patrons’). In the boroughs where the patron chose only one member, bribery often decided the other, e.g. at Beverley, Pontefract and Scarborough. Other boroughs were ‘rotten’ ones, and would elect anyone who paid for the privilege. At Hedon, for example, anyone might be a member if he paid the 300 electors handsomely enough.

Aldborough and Borougbbridge, each with about 100 houses, were pocket boroughs of the Duke of Newcastle. Of Beverley’s two members, one was chosen by Lord Yarborough. The Duke of Devonshire owned all 84 of the houses having voting rights at Knaresborough, and so, of course, he chose the members. Lord Fitzwilliam chose them at Malton; Lord Harewood chose the two members for Ripon. The Duke of Rutland and Lord Mulgrave each chose one at Scarborough, Sir Thomas Frankland both at Thirsk.

The ancient town of Kingston-upon-Hull and the City of York were too big either to be bribed or bullied. So in general the electors there (1,600 at Hull, 3,000 at York) could choose the candidates they thought likeliest to make good members. The county itself was much the largest constituency of England, with some 25,000 voters. It was far too big to be controlled by any patron, but the expense of fighting a Yorkshire election was so enormous that only a very rich man could afford to run. From 1742 to 1807 there were a dozen elections. Usually by agreement, in order to save expense, the Whigs chose one unopposed candidate, the Tories another. When the parties quarrelled in 1807 and fought the famous election of that year, the cost to the candidates was something like a quarter of a million pounds, equivalent to several million pounds of today’s money. Allowing for the change in the value of money, the 1807 election cost more than a hundred times as much as that of 1983. Fortunately for themselves, the chief candidates in 1807, William Wilberforce and Edward Lascelles, were very rich men indeed.

It was not without reason that for a long time before 1832 Yorkshire had been pressing for parliamentary reform, better election arrangements and a fairer distribution of parliamentary seats throughout the country. The great reform of Parliament in 1832 gave two members to each Riding, instead of four to the whole county. York kept its two members. In the West Riding, Aldborough and Boroughbridge each lost two; Knaresborough, Pontefract and Ripon kept their two; Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Halifax (which had not been represented before) gained two each; and Huddersfield and Wakefield each gained one. In the North Riding, two members were allotted to the whole area; Malton, Richmond and Scarborough each kept their two; Northallerton and Thirsk, which had two, were reduced to one each. Whitby, formerly not represented, was now allotted one member. The East Riding was also given two members for the whole area; Hull kept its two; so did Beverley. Hedon lost its representation altogether.

Yorkshire was represented much more fairly after 1832 than before 1822. In a House of Commons of the same size (658), it had 37 members instead of 30 before 1822 and 32 between 1822 and 1832. The extra representation had gone almost entirely to the highly industrialised and densely populated West Riding. There were, of course, other reforms after 1832. These have affected the size and number of parliamentary constituencies and the composition of the electorate. There is now a regular review of the boundaries of constituencies. In recent years Yorkshire has always had over fifty members in a House of Commons which has varied in size since the Second World War from 625 to 640. Direct elections for the European Parliament were first held in 1979. In the second election, held in 1984, Yorkshire elected members for the following constituencies: Leeds, Sheffield, York, Yorkshire South, Yorkshire South West and Yorkshire West. There was also a member for the new county Humberside.