The real history behind 'Poldark' series three: episode eight

As series three of Winston Graham’s Georgian-set drama continues on BBC One, historian Hannah Greig considers the real history behind each episode of Poldark. In the eighth instalment of a new series for History Extra, Hannah considers the ‘rotten boroughs’ of 18th-century Cornwall and George Warleggan’s path to parliament…

George Warleggan. (Image Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Craig Hardle)

Watch out, Westminster. George Warleggan, member of parliament for Truro is in the house. In episode eight, the Cornish electoral politics that have been evolving in the background since the previous series (when the hapless yet ambitious MP Unwin Trevaunance won his seat but lost Caroline Penvenen) takes centre stage. Under Sir Francis Basset’s interest, George achieves his ambition to enter parliament. 

In the Poldark novels, Winston Graham dramatizes a fundamental characteristic of Cornwall’s 18th-century past. The region was famously over-represented in parliament. By 1790, it was returning 44 MPs to Westminster (home to a total of 558 members), far more than anywhere else in the country and “a melancholy proof of the present great inequality of representation”, according to one contemporary visitor. Two of those MPs were elected as ‘county members’, representing the entire county of Cornwall. The remaining 42 were elected as ‘borough members’ (George’s ticket), representing 21 different boroughs.

Although each borough returned two MPs, they varied hugely in size and make-up. Among them were a number of so-called ‘rotten boroughs’, which had only a handful of voters, and ‘pocket boroughs’ which were entirely under the control of a local patron. The village of Mitchell, for example, returned two MPs but had only seven voters by 1821 (and a peak of 39 in the 1790s). Launceston came under the tight management of the Duke of Northumberland after he purchased estates in 1775, and the small number of tenants who had the franchise were guaranteed to support their landlord’s candidates. In contrast, elections in the borough of Penryn (a ‘scot and lot’ borough which extended the franchise to all those who paid poor rates) were said to be open to whichever candidate had the most money to burn. “’Tis said money is drove about in wheelbarrows,” claimed one observer in 1761, while a later newspaper report of 1825 suggested that wealthy candidates arrived periodically “to scatter gold and purchase their suffrages”.


(Image Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)
 

This complex and (in places) anachronistic and esoteric map of Cornish boroughs was controlled by a cohort of influential patrons from local elite families. Political historian Ed Jaggard has noted the significance of the fact that, in the closing decades of the 18th century, each heir to these families came of age at a similar time and under similar circumstances. Sir Frances Basset, Christopher Hawkins, George Boscawen, Edward James Eliot, John St Aubyn and William Molesworth all had controlling stakes in Cornwall’s boroughs. All were born in the late 1750s and early 1760s; all inherited their estates before they came of age, giving them access to significant financial resources and local power as young men; all held major political ambitions, but were as often in conflict as in collaboration with each other. As a result, in the 1780s and 1790s, Cornwall was pushed into a swirl of particularly aggressive contests over seats at general and by-elections, as these young men in their late twenties and early thirties wrestled to dominate the political infrastructure of the region. Francis Basset in particular was renowned for his ambition and determined political rivalry with George Boscawen, third Viscount Falmouth. 

In the novels, then, Graham places his fictitious characters, George and Ross, in the mix with these real 18th-century political powerbrokers – mapping their personal rivalry against the very real political rivalries that shaped the political environment of late 18th-century Cornwall. 

Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark.

Missed the real history behind episode seven? You can read Hannah's article about Winston Graham's 18th-century inspiration here…

 

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