Before 1821 Cornwall was properly represented, with 44 MPs, only one fewer than Scotland. All but two of them represented boroughs, each returning two members. The franchise in those days was ambiguous, being based on vaguely worded medieval or sixteenth-century charters. Basically, the vote was restricted to the householders of certain properties or the mayor and corporation, who selected any other ‘freemen’ entitled to vote.
From the 1600s onwards the larger gentry, families such as the Boscawens of Tregothnan, the Eliots at Port Eliot, the Edgcumbes of Mount Edgcumbe, had bought up most property entitled to a vote and become patrons of the boroughs. They would install tenants with a precarious tenancy or a willingness to vote for the patron’s nominees. This could easily be checked as the ballot was not secret.
In this system, open bribery of voters was rarely required, although extra payments were common, as at Grampound and Mitchell. The Cornish seat with the worst reputation for bribery was Penryn, which had one of the largest number of voters and was difficult to control by other means. Elections were therefore very welcome at Penryn, as it meant an influx of money for the town.
The costs of this meant it was in the patrons’ interests to reduce the number of voters. The 84 at Mitchell in 1784 had become 18 by 1816; the 60 or 70 at Launceston in 1700 were just 15 in 1816. Taken to its logical conclusion in small boroughs this process could sometimes result in just one voter electing the MPs. That happened at Bossiney in 1784. In any case, in practice usually one man – the patron – effectively decided who would get elected.
Patrons would either install members of their own family or relations as MPs or sell the seat to aspiring MPs. The going price in the early 1800s was from £1,000 to £5,000, or around £100,000 to half a million in today’s money. In return patrons were expected to provide benefits for the boroughs. They might pay the local poor and church rates for example, as at Helston, or give liberally to charities – the Eliots paid for schools at Liskeard – or put on lavish entertainments.
Occasionally, bitter disputes broke out between patrons struggling to wrest control of boroughs away from each other. In 1810 the two most notorious Cornish boroughmongers of the time, Francis Basset (Lord de Dunstanville) of Tehidy and Sir Christopher Hawkins of Trewithen – fought out a duel near London. ‘The parties exchanged two shots each, neither of which took effect’ … ‘the Boroughs were the cause’, a contemporary reported.