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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

Parliamentary Representation

Originally, parliaments were formed as advisors to the king. They consisted of noblemen, members of the aristocracy and two elected representatives from each county called ‘Knights of the Shire’.

In 1295 King Edward I, formed a parliament of 49 Lords and 292 elected commoners. The commoners were made up of Knights of the Shire representing the counties, two Burgesses from each borough and two citizens from every city. Although all were elected, different voting criteria existed throughout the country.

The Model Parliament, as it became known, had the power to raise taxes for the king’s wars, being his purpose for forming it, and to take up grievances with the monarch. The members became far more interested in the later and a trade-off commenced; money for a war with Scotland in 1296, in exchange for certain grievances being settled.

Edward III split parliament into two houses as they are today, with the Knights of the Shire and the burgesses going to the commons. At this time, all male householders were entitled to vote, tenants being expected to vote the way of their landlord. Voting was not secret, and took place at the County Town, the voter mounting a platform and declaring his favoured candidate. It was not unusual for voters to expect reimbursement of their expenses from the candidate, making the cost of standing for election substantial.

By 1430, it was considered that ‘elections were crowded by people of low estate, and that confusion had thereby resulted,’ the system was changed, whereby only men with a freehold worth at least 40 shillings could vote. There was however, no requirement to live in the constituency and so multiple votes in different counties could be made, providing properties were owned.

By 1832, there were two types of constituency, the Counties and the Boroughs. Kent returned two Knights of the Shire, and sixteen Burgesses from eight Boroughs. Rules on who could vote would vary from Borough to Borough. The Boroughs at that time were Canterbury, Dover, Hythe, Maidstone, New Romney, Queenborough, Rochester and Sandwich.

Only towns granted a royal charter could be boroughs, usually because of their mercantile importance. However, because of changes in circumstance some towns no longer deserved their Borough status, populations had dwindled, resulting in very few voters remaining, and were known as Rotten Boroughs. These would often be controlled by a Lord who gave the seats to his friends or relatives, thereby increasing his own influence in Parliament. Two such Boroughs in Kent were New Romney and Queenborough.

The Reform Act 1832, as it was commonly referred, was designed to ‘take effectual measures for correcting diverse abuses that had long prevailed in the choice of members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament’. The Kent County was split in two, with the introduction of ‘Kent Eastern’ and ‘Kent Western’, both returning two MPs’. New Romney and Queenborough were disenfranchised, which left Kent with sixteen representatives in the House of Commons.

The right to vote was extended to rented householders who paid above a set amount, dependent upon the type of lease and location. The net affect being to increase the number of voters to about 1 in 6 men. For the first time an electoral register was established.

Although, many issues had not been addressed satisfactorily, it had taken many years to reach this point. Changes had been made by Cromwell in the 17th century, but were reversed following restoration of the monarchy in 1660. No further attempts were made until the second half of the 18th century, when William Pitt, the elder, and followed by his son a few years later, both introduced bills, which unfortunately failed, despite a petition being raised containing over 20,000 signatures.

Many pro-reform organisations were formed and pressured for further attempts but none were achieved. The breakthrough came with the death of King George IV in 1860, parliament was dissolved and a general election called. Electoral reform became a major campaign issue, despite that and the overwhelming public support for reform, it still took over two years of intense parliamentary wrangling before a bill received royal assent.

A further bill called the second Reform Act 1867 allowed all male householders the vote. The Kent County was further split with the addition of Mid-Kent, which returned two MPs and the enfranchisement of Gravesend, having one representative. Working class men now formed the majority in most boroughs, and would often be told where to place their vote by employers and landlords. With voting still being open, it would be obvious if they had not followed instructions.

In 1872 the Ballot Act was passed, which introduced a secret voting system. Voting rights were extended further, in 1884, to include up to 60% of all males. The following year, a redistribution of constituencies took place, making each a similar voting size. The concept of one MP per constituency was also introduced. The main changes in Kent was the replacement of Kent East, Kent Mid, Kent West and Sandwich, by Ashford, Dartford, Faversham, Isle of Thanet, Medway, St Augustines, Sevenoaks and Tunbridge.

Voting rights were extended further, in 1918, to all male householders over the age of 21, and for the first time women over 30 whom either were a member, or married to a member, of the local government register. Women did not gain complete equality with men until 1928, when full voting rights were given to every British subject over the age of 21, provided they were registered with a constituency. Multiple voting was abolished even if someone was registered in more than one constituency or because of business premises. Constituencies were divided into polling districts and polling places within each district.

Votes were extended further to include 18 year olds in 1969. 1983 saw more constituency changes with Rochester, Gravesend and St Augstines being replaced with Gillingham, Gravesham, Medway, Mid Ken, North Kent and Tunbridge Wells, with Isle of Thanet becoming South Thanet. Finally, changes in 1997 produced three new constituencies, Chatham and Aylesford, North Thanet and Sittingbourne and Sheppey, with the loss of North Kent, while Faversham was amalgamated with Mid Kent.


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