Downton (UK Parliament constituency)
|Former Borough constituency
for the House of Commons
|Number of members||Two|
The borough consisted of part of the parish of Downton, a small town six miles south of Salisbury. By the 19th century, only about half of the town was within the boundaries of the borough, and the more prosperous section was excluded: at the 1831 census the borough had 166 houses and a tax assessment of £70, whereas the whole town consisted of 314 houses, and was assessed at £273.
Downton was a burgage borough, meaning that the right to vote rested solely with the freeholders of 100 specified properties or "burgage tenements"; it was not necessary to be resident on the tenement, or even in the borough, to exercise this right. Indeed, some of the tenements could not realistically be occupied, and one was in the middle of a watercourse. At the time of the Great Reform Act, The Earl of Radnor (who supported the Reform) told the House of Lords that he owned 99 of the 100 tenements — which, of course, gave him absolute power in choosing both the borough's MPs. Earlier, in the 18th century, the Duncombe family had been the owners.
Corruption was rife at 18th century elections in Downton, and the House of Commons at one point proposed to "throw it into the hundred", that is to extend the boundaries to include the whole of the Hundred of Downton and to abolish the restrictive franchise — one of the earliest examples of such a proposal being debated; however, the proposal was not adopted.
Although there was supposedly a property qualification to become an MP (borough MPs were required to have an annual income of at least £300 derived from the ownership of land), this was routinely ignored or evaded, and Downton offers perhaps the only example of an election being re-run because the victor lacked the qualification. On 11 June 1826 the poet Southey was elected MP for Downton, but he did not take his seat when Parliament assembled in July, and in November wrote to the Speaker: "Having while I was on the continent been, without my knowledge, elected a burgess to serve in the present Parliament for the borough of Downton, it has become my duty to take the earliest opportunity of requesting you to inform the honourable House that I am not qualified to take a seat therein, inasmuch as I am not possessed of such an estate as is required by the Act passed in the ninth year of Queen Anne." A by-election had to be held to replace him.
By 1831 the parish of Downton had a population of around 450, too small to retain representation after the Reform Act, and yet in the original Reform Bill it was proposed that Downton should lose only one of its two members, its boundaries being extended to include Fordingbridge, over the county border in Hampshire. However, the Earl of Radnor pushed for its complete disfranchisement as it would be too difficult to make even an extended borough free of the influence of himself and his family. (He also made it a condition of becoming MP for Downton that its members should vote for its abolition.) As this abolition of a Whig-owned borough was useful to the Whig government in demonstrating their even-handedness, they backed an amendment to move Downton into Schedule A, the list of boroughs that were to lose both seats; but the government majority in the Commons fell to 30 in the vote on the amendment, the narrowest of all the votes on the details of the eventual Act.
The Reform Act being passed, Downton ceased to be represented from the 1832 general election, those of its residents who were qualified voting instead in the county constituency of Southern Wiltshire.
Members of Parliament
- Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper was elected in 1640, but the election was disputed, and resolution of the dispute was delayed by the English Civil War. Cooper was not admitted to sit until January 1660.
- The by-election in December 1715 was caused by the death of John Eyre
- The by-election in 1742 was caused by the death of John Verney
- The by-election in November 1746 was caused by the death of Joseph Windham-Ashe
- At the 1747 general election, George Lyttelton was also elected for Okehampton, which he chose to represent, and never sat for Downton. A by-election was held in Downton in December 1747
- The by-election in November 1749 was caused by the death of Richard Temple
- The by-election in April 1751 was caused by the death of George Proctor
- The by-election in May 1753 was caused by the resignation of Colonel Henry Vane to contest a by-election for County Durham
- The by-election in December 1756 was caused by the death of James Cope
- The by-election in July 1757 was caused by the resignation of James Hayes
- The by-election in February 1762 was caused by the resignation of Charles Pratt, who had been appointed as Lord Chief Justice
- Thomas Pym Hales succeeded as baronet in December 1762
- At the 1774 general election, Duncombe and Dummer were initially declared the victors, but on petition it was decided that they had not been duly elected and their opponents, Cooper and Hales, were declared elected in their place
- On petition it was decided that Bouverie had not been duly elected and his opponent, Shafto, was declared elected in his place
- At the general election in April 1784, there was a double return. Seymour-Conway, Bouverie and Scott were declared not elected on 19 July 1784 with only Shafto being declared duly elected. A by-election for the vacant seat was held on 26 July 1784, when another double return was made: Seymour-Conway and Bouverie. Seymour-Conway was declared elected on 11 March 1785
- The by-election in March 1801 was caused by the resignation of Sir William Scott to stand at a by-election for Oxford University
- The by-election in June 1803 was caused by the resignation of Hon. Edward Bouverie
- The by-election in April 1813 was caused by the resignation of Bouverie and the appointment of Plumer as Vice Chancellor
- At the 1818 general election, both of the successful candidates in Downton were also returned for other sears, for which they chose to sit: Viscount Folkestone for Salisbury and Scott for Oxford University. A by-election was held for both seats in February 1819
- At the general election in June 1826 Estcourt was also elected for Oxford University and chose to sit for the university
- The poet laureate Robert Southey was proposed and elected without his knowledge, and declined to sit on the grounds that he did not meet the property qualification to be a borough MP
- The July 1831 by-election was caused by the resignation of Brougham to contest a by-election for Winchelsea
- Robert Beatson, A Chronological Register of Both Houses of Parliament (London: Longman, Hurst, Res & Orme, 1807) 
- Michael Brock, The Great Reform Act (London: Hutchinson, 1973)
- D Brunton & D H Pennington, Members of the Long Parliament (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954)
- Cobbett's Parliamentary history of England, from the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the year 1803 (London: Thomas Hansard, 1808) 
- Lewis Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (2nd edition, London: St Martin's Press, 1961)
- J Holladay Philbin, Parliamentary Representation 1832 — England and Wales (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965)
- Edward Porritt and Annie G Porritt, The Unreformed House of Commons (Cambridge University Press, 1903)
- Woodford, A.R. Notes on the history of Downton, collected and arranged (Downton, nd)
- Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs – Constituencies beginning with "D" (part 3)