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  THE STORY OF SHOREHAM       AT THE BAR OF THE HOUSE  
               
                 
It appears that a majority of the freemen of the Borough formed themselves into a club under the name of the " Christian Society." The date of its formation has not been ascertained, but it flourished for many years, and under the cloak of piety and religion the members carried on what they called " burgessing business," setting the Borough for sale to the highest bidder while the rest of the freemen who " were not of this flock " were deprived of the benefit of their votes.   On the 8th February following, Hugh Roberts was called to the Bar of the House of Commons and charged with having made a false return to Parliament. During his examination and defence some further interesting facts came to light.
  He stated that on the death of Sir Samuel Cornish, five candidates for the vacant seat came down from London, and that the agent of one of them, inadvertently "mentioned in company " that the Christian Society had appointed a committee of five to make terms with the candidates, that General Smith had offered for the seat £3,000 and to build 600 tons of shipping at Shoreham, but that Mr. Rumbold " had bid more." Further, that at the last Election an affidavit was made and read, that Mr. Rumbold's agent had agreed with the members of the society to give them £35 for each vote, and for these reasons Roberts had disqualified these electors although they had taken the bribery oath.
The Christian Society's usual place of meeting was the "Star Inn," over which hostelry it was customary to hoist a flag whenever it was desirable to call the members together. None but voters for representatives in Parliament were ever admitted into the Society, but most of the voters were members. They employed a constant clerk and held regular monthly and occasional meetings, and the members took an oath of secrecy and entered into a bond, under a penalty of £500, to bind them together with regard to " burgessing."  
           
            Hugh Roberts pleaded that if he had done wrong it was without intent, and submitted himself to the decision of the House. On the 12th February he brought up witnesses in his favour, but the House, judging that this assumption of such power by a Returning Officer, upon whatever principle it was based, would be a most dangerous precedent, ordered him to be taken into custody by the Sergeant-at-Arms.
The traffic was carried on by means of a " Select Committee," whose members made the pretence of scruples of conscience their reason for never appearing or voting at any Election themselves, but who, having sold the Borough to the highest bidder and received the stipulated price, gave directions to the rest how to vote, and shared the money as soon as the Election was over.  
  The next day, with all humility, he acknowledged the offence by which he had incurred the displeasure of the House, their justice in punishing him, begged pardon and implored to be discharged from confinement. In consideration of the circumstances in his favour and of his having exposed so corrupt an organization he was discharged, after having received, kneeling at the Bar of the House of Commons, a severe reprimand from the Speaker, Sir Fletcher Norton.
In February, 1770, a report of the death of Sir Samuel Cornish reached Shoreham. At once the flag was hoisted over the "Star Inn," and the members of the Christian Society assembled. Many of them declared that they would support the highest bidder, but some, and among them Hugh Roberts, the High Constable, who by virtue of his office was Returning Officer, expressed themselves offended at such a declaration and, saying that the Society was " nothing but a heap of bribery," withdrew.  
  The Shoreham Election of 1770, became the talk of the country. A full enquiry into the practices of the Christian Society was made, and a Bill was brought in to disfranchise the eighty-one freemen who were its members. The Bill met with "some opposition " but finally received the Royal Assent, 8th May, 1771.
The report of the Member's decease proved to be false, he did not die until late in the year. Five candidates then offered themselves for election. Three of them-Thomas Rumbold, John Purling, and William James went to the poll, which took place on the 26th November, resulting in the following number of  
  This Act, after reciting that " a wicked and corrupt society, calling itself the Christian Society," existed in Shoreham, incapacitated and disabled by name 68 of its members from voting at Parliamentary Elections. By this, a sufficient number was not left to enable the Borough to continue to exercise the right of sending two representatives.   Its limits were therefore extended
votes being recorded : Rumbold, 87 ; Purling, 37 ; James, 4. Hugh Roberts queried 76 of Rumbold's votes and returned Purling. The former petitioned. A Select Committee of fifteen was appointed to deal with the matter, and the corrupt practices of the Christian Society were then made public.  
           
                 
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Copyright © Martin Snow 2002 All rights reserved
Revised 27 February 2002