This was written by Nicholas Salmon and appeared in the April 1992 Amersham Society News
This month’s General Election reminds me that between 1624 and 1832 Amersham was one of the notorious ‘rotten’ boroughs. Under an Act of Parliament dated 4th May 1624 the town was entitled to return two members of parliament voted in by the 130 ‘tenants of the borough paying scot and lot’. The remarkable thing was that the borough only stretched along one side of the High Street thus disenfranchising all those who lived across the road!
This was unacceptable to the inhabitants of the town so the habit was established of holding two different votes. The first, known as the ‘short’ poll, consisted of those householders who lived within the boundaries of the official borough. The second, the ‘long’ poll, also allowed the householders on the other side of the road, to vote. The authorities soon became so confused about which poll was legitimate that some candidates actually entered parliament as a result of winning the illegal ‘long’ poll.
From the beginning the Drakes exercised considerable control over the two seats. As Lords of the Manor of Amersham they owned many of the properties in the town and were able to put considerable pressure on their tenants to support the candidates they sponsored. As each voter had to make a public declaration of which way he intended to vote, it took a brave man to defy them.
However, in the 17th Century, the Drakes were defeated on a number of occasions by radical candidates. These surprise results were due to the opposition of the large nonconformist population to the Drakes and the building of new houses outside their control. Between 1670 and 1740, the Drakes attempted to neutralise this radical threat by purchasing as much property in the town as they could and by dividing some of the large houses in two so as to create an additional vote. By 1740 this had been so successful that the vicar, the Rev. Benjamin Robertshaw, was able to write to William Drake that ‘the spirit of opposition’ that had existed in the town had been ‘so conjured and subdued as that it will hardly ever rise again if tolerable care be taken’.
From this time onward the Drakes or their supporters were always returned. Despite this dominance, the Drakes were careful to observe the niceties of electioneering. Election Day was a holiday for all. In 1790 it began with the ringing of the church bells at St Mary’s and the sound of the Town Crier informing the inhabitants of the writs for the election. A noisy crowd then gathered near the Market Hall to hear the nominations and speeches and watch the voting. The Drakes then delivered their acceptance speeches and paraded up and down the High Street in their carriage followed by a cheering crowd of townsfolk.
These formalities completed, everyone retired to their favourite hostelries to be supped and wined at the candidates’ expense. In those days, inns tended to cater for certain sections of the population and the social grading of those in Amersham can be deduced from the bills for this entertainment. The ‘Griffin’ headed the list. Here £88 9s 4d was spent on entertaining the local gentry and election officers and an additional guinea spent on a band. Below the ‘Griffin’ were the ‘Crown’ (£73 7s 6d), the ‘King’s Arms’ (£63 16s 0d), the ‘Swan’ (£43 18s 0d), the ‘Hare and Hounds’ (£26 16s 6d) and finally the ‘Saracen’s Head’ (£25 17s 0d). Dancing and singing continued into the night fuelled by an additional 2 hogsheads (over 100 gallons) of beer purchased from the local Wellers Brewery. The total cost of this uncontested election was a massive £358 3s 4d.
The last election in Amersham was held in 1831. The town ceased to have the right to return members to Parliament following the Reform Act of 1832. Amersham disappeared as a constituency until the Boundary Commission Report of 1969 was implemented in November 1970. This Commission created the present constituency of Chesham and Amersham.
Another article was written by John Clutterbuck in 2007 and appears here with permission
Elections in a rotten borough
Amersham had been represented in the thirteenth century Parliament, following which there was a gap of four hundred years. In the early seventeenth century, William Hakewill, a Lincolns Inn lawyer, petitioned King James for Amersham, Great Marlow and Wendover to resume the right to send MPs to Westminster. King James was not keen, observing that he had quite enough of that kind of thing already. Hakewill’s lobbying paid off. Amersham was granted the right to elect two MPs, one of whom turned out to be Hakewill. Subsequently, Amersham was often represented by the Drake family of Shardeloes.
Voting rights for the hundred or so Amersham electors were by “scot and lot”, i.e. limited to ratepayers. As landowners of much of Amersham from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century, Drakes knew where people lived. There was no secret ballot, with voting taking place in the “election inn”, the Griffin, now an ASK restaurant. Not all of Drake family were keen to be MPs, one stating that he did not care to go to Westminster because of the difficulty of encountering a decent sort of people.
In the two hundred years after William Hakewill’s election, Amersham was in a privileged position. Large parts of the country, including the growing industrial towns and cities of the Midlands and the North, were disenfranchised. The Reform Act of 1832 went some way to correct the anachronistic overrepresentation of the rotten boroughs and to provide representation for new centres of population.
William Drake’s accounts following the 1790 election showed how expensive an election could be:
1790, June 18 £ s d
The Griffin bill for Election entertainment – £88 9 4
The Crown – £73 7 6
The King’s Arms – £63 16 0
The Hare & Hounds – £26 16 6
The Saracen’s Head – £25 17 0
Mr Weller for 2 hogheads of strong ale given
away at the Market House – £6 11 0
Mathias Line for 2 hogsheadsof strong beer
given away at the Chequers – £7 4 0
To eight Carriers – £8 8 0
To six Wardsmen – £0 15 0
To Music at the Griffin (six men) – £1 1 0
To the Under Sheriff – £5 5 0
To Mr Marshall – £5 5 0
To William Kestell the Cryer – £0 5 0
To the Ringers – £5 5 0
£358 3 4
A 1790 pound is said to be equivalent of about £90 in 2007, so William Drake’s generosity would cost him over £30,000 at modern prices.
The bill for the 1796 election was £395-11-8, of which John Fowler’s bill for the Crown amounted to £135-4-6, half of which was for wine.
These celebratory expenses were for food and drink for the good folk of Amersham after the election – it could cost considerably more to buy votes before the election. It seems that elections in Amersham were relatively honest compared with those in Wycombe, which was represented in the eighteenth century by the notorious Francis Dashwood, and Wendover, often represented by the Hampden family.