There were two each in what were at the time the three most significant Island towns of Newport, Yarmouth, and Newtown. And today it is worth remembering that behind the closed doors of the attractive old Town Halls found in those three towns, unashamed political shenanigans were once conducted which puts modern politicians into a far purer light!
The explanation for this extraordinary ‘six MPs’ fact is found partly in the medieval success and importance of the Isle of Wight at the time when Parliament was created, but mostly in a deliberately planned exploitation of that institution in late Tudor times. It continued into the 19th century, when ‘Rotten Boroughs’ were finally disenfranchised. In the interim, the Island was a wonderful illustration of the worst kind of political manipulation and abuse, which made a nonsense of so-called parliamentary ‘representation’.
The story begins more than 700 years ago in 1295 when King Edward I created his new Model Parliament, with representation sought from both the counties and the boroughs. At the time our three major towns were Yarmouth, established by Charter in 1135; Newport, granted a Charter c.1185; and Newtown, originally called Francheville, established in the 1230s. But only Newport and Yarmouth were given the right, as boroughs of sufficient importance, to send members to the new Parliament of 1295.
It is unclear how long Yarmouth and Newport continued to return MPs, but at some time both towns clearly allowed this right to lapse. Perhaps it was as a consequence of the fierce raid in 1377 by French and Castilian forces, who destroyed Yarmouth and Newtown and then attacked Newport. While both ‘why’ and ‘when’ remains a mystery, the certainty that their representative rights had long-lapsed makes the actions of the Island’s Captain (Governor) in 1584 even more spectacular.
Sir George Carey, first cousin to Elizabeth I, was granted permission to raise more support for the Queen in Parliament by re-enfranchising Newport and Yarmouth with two MPs each. While it was reasonable enough in Newport’s case to give it one Member, two was hard to justify. But in Yarmouth’s case a town described as ‘in decay’ when it had only 26 houses, it was astonishing, even though Carey argued it was aimed to stimulate a borough which was still reeling from its second destruction by the French in the 1540s.
However, even this pales into insignificance compared with the simultaneous granting of two MPs to Newtown – a place which had never recovered from the raid of 1377, over two centuries earlier! It was then, as it remains today, a quiet, rural backwater with little more than a church and a handful of houses.
But the upshot was the Island being ‘represented’ by six MPs, who in each case were to be elected by a small number of burgesses or freemen. And beyond creating this ludicrous situation, Carey was quick to exploit it, exercising strong personal control over the selection of the individual MPs.
A letter to the Mayor and Burgesses of Yarmouth for the election of 1601, instructed them ‘that inasmuch as I was the Means and Procurer of the Libertie for your Corporation, you will, with all the Convenience you may, assemble yourselfs together, and, with your united Consent, send up unto me (as heretofore you have done) your Wrytt, with a Blank, wherein I may insert the Names of such Persons as I shall think fittest to discharge that Dewtie for your Behoofe’.
In other words, he would nominate, no doubt in exchange for a considerable ‘fee’ from each, Yarmouth’s two MPs for the new Parliament, as he had done before. So started under Carey – by then Baron Hunsdon – a system of spectacular corruption, under which there was no element of actual representation; the MPs were not required to know, or even visit their constituency!
Although no one ever again had the direct control exercised by Carey over the appointment of all six MPs for the Island, after his death, a similar system evolved at local level. With only members of the local Corporation (town council) entitled to vote in elections, the dominant ones in each corporation could effectively dictate who would be elected.
In Newtown by the late 18th century, an agreement was signed and sealed between the Barringtons and the Worsleys agreeing that ‘each party nominates the Mayor alternatively and each party always nominates to and holds one of the two seats in Parliament’.
In Yarmouth things were very similar, dominated especially by the Holmes and the Leigh/Jervois families, whose names appear on the plaque on the Town Hall, where they alternately held the Mayorship and determined the appointment of the borough’s MPs.
In Newport the very wealthy Holmes family, beneficiaries of Admiral Sir Robert Holmes of Yarmouth who died in 1692, also came to dominate, nominating both the town’s MPs by the end of the 18th century.
So a young Lord Palmerston, the future famed Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, paid a large, but unrecorded, sum to Sir Leonard Holmes in 1807 to secure an immediate seat in Parliament for Newport – the condition being that he never set foot in the borough!
Palmerston was not the only future Prime Minister who availed himself of the undemocratic and purchasable parliamentary seats in the Island’s ‘rotten boroughs’. Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, sat simultaneously for Newport with Palmerston in 1807, and in 1827 Sir William Lamb – Viscount Melbourne the following year – sat fleetingly for the borough too.
Meanwhile, back in 1679 Newtown was represented by John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, and over a century later was twice the seat of George Canning, another future Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. And, in Yarmouth in 1830-1, Sir Robert Peel’s brother, William, was an MP.
While most of these people proved good and effective servants of the country, the system itself was rotten to the core. By 1832, when Parliament was finally frightened by widespread rioting into reforming itself, Cornwall, through its association with the Crown, had accumulated 44 parliamentary seats while Wales had only 24.
At the same time that Yarmouth and Newtown, with a combined population of just over 600 in the 1820s, returned four MPs, the new industrial super-centre of Manchester, with a population approaching 140,000, had no MP – the same as Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and a host of others!
The ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832 marked a huge step forward and, equally important, set the precedent for further advances. It swept aside 56 of the country’s most ‘rotten boroughs’, including Newtown and Yarmouth, and redistributed their seats to the large unrepresented cities.
However, it left untouched towns with a population of over 4,000 – as Newport’s was, but only just – resulting in the continuing nonsense of small towns like Newport having two MPs, the same as Manchester, Birmingham, etc. This changed with subsequent Reform Acts until eventually full and equal voting rights were granted to all, in 1918 to men and 1929 to women.