KEVIN GORDON - When Lewes first returned an MP

Seaford Town Hall where the voters queued to give their names.
Seaford Town Hall where the voters queued to give their names.

As I work in the Houses of Parliament I am naturally interested in politics and by this time next week we will know who our Member of Parliament will be.

Lewes has returned a member of Parliament since 1295. The first two members of Parliament being Gervais de Wolvehope and Richard de Palmere. Seaford returned its first two MPs three years later when Geoffrey Cuckoo and William Hobey were called to York at Whitsuntide to attend a parliament.

Thomas Pelham-Holles - the parliamentary 'fixer'

Thomas Pelham-Holles - the parliamentary 'fixer'

Nearly 100 years later, the county of Sussex also began to return two Members of Parliament. The first being Roger Hussey and Andrew Peverell. Voting in the Sussex election was allowed by adult men who owned land to the value of 40 shillings or more. The voting took place in Chichester which must have meant that many from our area did not vote even though they were entitled to.

There were huge parliamentary changes thanks to the Reform Act of 1832, when the constituency of Sussex was divided into East and West and many Sussex constituencies including Bramber, East Grinstead, Seaford, Winchelsea and Steyning were abolished.

There have been some strange constituencies. Calais in France and Tournai in Belgium returned MPs to Westminster as they had previously been ruled by England. Until 1950 there were Members of Parliament representing Oxford, Cambridge, Belfast, Wales and London Universities, also there was one MP to represent all English universities and one MP to represent all Scottish universities. Some constituencies are not so ancient, the Wealden Constituency was not created until 1983.

Another constituency that returned two Members of Parliament until the Reform Act was Dunwich in Suffolk. Like Seaford it had once been an important medieval port which had seen better days. The sea had encroached so far inland, that the village and its church no longer existed and its two Members of Parliament represented just 32 people. This was one of the famous ‘rotten boroughs’. In 1754 the Duke of Newcastle, Thomas Pelham-Holles, purchased one of the seats at Dunwich for £1,000. The Duke who owned much of Sussex and who would regularly go hunting at Bishopstone then gave the seat to one of his supporters.

The system of buying votes was satirised by Ben Elton in the Blackadder series when Baldrick won the seat of ‘Dunny-on-the-Wold’ by beating the Whig candidate, Pitt the Even Younger by 16,472 votes even though there was only one person in the constituency eligible to vote.

William Pitt the Elder was the MP for Seaford in 1747. He had previously represented the constituency of Old Sarum (near Salisbury) which once returned two MPs with an electorate of just seven voters!

It is no surprise that Pitt was asked to stand by the Duke of Newcastle. The election was to be held on 29th June 1747 and Pitt stayed the night with the Duke at his country home at Bishopstone Place. I say stayed the night - the previous day a huge banquet was put on at Bishopstone and all the local gentry (i.e. voters) were invited. The party went on all night and at day-break the revellers were piled into carriages and taken to the Town Hall at Seaford to vote.

Pitt had a rival candidate in the form of William Gage, the son of Lord Gage. The Gages of Firle Place were rivals to the Pelhams and William, an Equerry to the Prince of Wales, was keen to get into Parliament. To make sure that the electorate voted for his candidate the Duke of Newcastle sat immediately next to the Returning Officer Charles Harison and looked them in the eye before they cast their vote. In those days there was no secret ballot, the voters queued in front of the Town Hall and called out their name and who they wished to vote for. A clerk then recorded this in a poll book.

As most of these men had just spent the night being entertained by the Duke, it is no wonder that his man was duly elected. Pitt of course went on the serve as Prime Minister and at 24 years, his son William Pitt the Younger (who was a Freeman of Seaford) was to become our youngest ever Prime Minister.

The beaten candidate did not have to wait too long to get into Parliament. William Gage (later Viscount Gage) went on to serve Seaford as its MP just a few months later and represented the town until 1780.

I have had a lot of election material pushed through my door in recent weeks but I am disappointed that not one of the Parliamentary candidates has invited me to a banquet. Still, at least I can vote on Thursday without the steely eye of the the Duke of Newcastle making sure I have voted ‘the right way’.