One famous illustration of this condition of things became an effective argument in favour of reform at a day a little later, which we shall have to deal with more fully after a while, when a definite Reform Bill was brought forward in the House of Commons. During the debates on that question the representative of a place called Ludgershall, himself a sincere reformer, attracted much attention by the brief and effective manner in which he dealt with the question. He said: "I am the owner of Ludgershall, I am the constituency of Ludgershall, I am the representative of Ludgershall, and in each capacity I demand the disfranchisement of Ludgershall." One of the most famous places which were made conspicuous at that time was the borough of Old Sarum. Every reader who has even dipped into the history of those times must have met over and over again with allusions to such boroughs as Gatton and Old Sarum. Either case would answer as an argument for the present purpose; but we take the case of Old Sarum as being perhaps, on the whole, the more picturesque of the two. Old Sarum was a town in Wiltshire; it stood on Salisbury Plain, in the very shadow of the majestic ruins of Stonehenge, to which travellers from all ends of the earth make pilgrimage to-day. Old Sarum was authorised to send representatives to Parliament in the time of Edward I. The right of representation was renewed in the reign of Edward III., and from that time it remained until the reform agitation took distinct and practical shape in 1830; but in the meanwhile the town of Old Sarum itself had gradually disappeared. A New Sarum was arising under happier auspices a few miles away around the noble walls and spire of Salisbury Cathedral : for the New Sarum of a former day is the thriving city of Salisbury to-day. Old Sarum, however, or at least the owner of the soil, manfully stuck to the right of sending representatives to the House of Commons. Travellers who go to visit Stonehenge at the present day are often taken a little out of their direct course in order that they may be shown the few evidences that yet remain of the existence of Old Sarum, the few faint traces that are left to prove that once upon a time there was a town or village on the spot which had the right of sending men to represent it in Parliament. For years and for generations the men who sat in Parliament for the borough of Old Sarum represented nothing but the bare soil and the will of a landed proprietor.
It may at first seem incredible that such a state of things could have existed in England in the memories of men who are still living; but the actual fact is beyond dispute. In the meanwhile, new conditions of things were arising all over the country: trade and manufactures were growing here, there, and everywhere; England was gradually ceasing to be essentially an agricultural country, and was becoming a country of commerce and of manufactured goods; great towns were rising up in different parts of the island, full of life and bustle and energy, where workmen were employed by hundreds, and capital was invested to an immense amount; where crowded streets and busy shops told their story of growing and spreading prosperity. Many of these towns had no representation whatever in Parliament, while the empty spaces of Ludgershall and Old Sarum had men to speak for them in the great national chamber of debate. The fact was, that the whole parliamentary system had come to a deadlock; it was no longer practicable for the Sovereign to create constituencies wherever he thought fit; the time had passed for such an act of initiative on the part of the monarch; and on the other hand, the time had not yet come when the reform movement had become strong enough to set to work at undoing the errors of the past and introducing a rational and symmetrical system of parliamentary representation. Thus it came about that at least two-thirds of the numbers of men who sat in the House of Commons were the mere nominees of peers or great landlords.
These owners of the soil, to quote the words of a modern writer, "owned their boroughs and their members, just as they owned their parks and their cattle." "Have I not a right to do what I like with my own?" was the argument of a powerful peer, even after Old Sarum had been extinguished; and in this demand he was asserting his right to nominate any one he pleased as representative of the constituency wherein he was the lord of the soil. One duke had the right of returning eleven members to Parliament; another had to be content with nominating only nine. As a matter of course, parliamentary seats were openly bought and sold. There were some cases in which the right of representation was offered for sale by public advertisement. Thus, therefore, there were two gross anomalies brought into striking contrast. On the one side of the field there were a number of absolutely empty spaces endowed with the right of sending members to the House of Commons; and on the other side there were populous and thriving towns and cities which had no legal claim whatever to parliamentary representation. It was obviously impossible that such a state of things could long continue in a country like England which was growing more every day into civilisation; but it cannot be doubted that the French Revolution had, for a time, a disheartening effect, even upon some most earnest advocates of a rational scheme of reform. Besides these outrageous anomalies, as we may fairly call them, the whole electoral system was full of the grossest abuses. When a contest took place in a borough, that is, in a borough which had any population and any voters to contest, the polling was allowed at one time to go on for six weeks, and only towards the close of the century was the time-limit reduced to fifteen days. Bribery of the grossest kind was allowed to go on without any one thinking of interfering. The cost of a severe contest was so great that nobody but a rich man, or at all events a man with rich backers, could possibly think of undertaking to stand for a constituency, no matter what his merits or his cause.