Baseline characteristics of Preston about 1825
3. Governing institutions and their members
There were three separate bodies with authority d borough for ruling the affairs of the town. As an anciently incorporate Preston’s Corporation was pre-eminently the dignified part of the local constitution, but it had little impact on the community apart from control of markets and of the borough magistrates. Responsibility for the condition of the streets, and for lighting and policing them, lay with the Improvement Commissioners, and for relief of the poor of the parish with the Vestry, both of which paid for their services by laying rates. Each of these three bodies was composed in a different way.
The Corporation (8) consisted of: a mayor, theoretically elected by a jury of twenty four resident burgesses and in practice appointed annually by arrangement amongst the aldermen who served in rotation; seven aldermen for life theoretically elected by the common councillors but in practice generally chosen by seniority; and seventeen common councillors elected from those burgesses who had served as bailiffs, by the existing aldermen and burgesses , the conclusion of the Corporation’s Report will be familiar: ‘All the members of the Common Council are self-elected’. The Corporation managed its own estate – farms, land, buildings, and the Corn Exchange, worth £2,260 in rent – somewhat conservatively, owed a debt of £14,000 (mainly to its own members) for the building of the Corn Exchange, and administered seven charities, which included the Library bequeathed by Dr Shepherd, and the Grammar School. The mayor’s duties which included acting as returning officer in borough elections were regarded as a burdensome and expensive honour because he was expected to contribute to and to provide hospitality. The seven aldermen apart from serving as mayor in rotation, were Justices of the Peace and Coroners for the borough, Commissioners under the Improvement Act of 1815, and members of the Select Vestry. As magistrates they also controlled the annual licensing sessions. In 1825 the occupations of the members of the Corporation were as follows: (9)
attorney – 6, cotton spinner – 4, banker – 3, medical – 1, surveyor – 1 (the Corporation Steward and Treasurer), furrier – 1, draper – 2, chemist, druggist and oil merchant – 1, nursery and seedsman- 1 not known – 10.
This list on its own is not as enlightening as its details. The mayor was the banker Richard Newsham, who was associated with the Horrocks cotton business; and Richard Newsham junior was serving as Town Bailiff. Samuel Horrocks and Thomas Miller were both aldermen. Richard Palmer, appointed county coroner with the assistance of Horrocks, was both a common councillor and Town Clerk (an unpaid position). The nurseryman and seedsman John Taylor (with trade connections in the county?) was older brother of William Taylor, who was manager of one of Horrocks’s mills before starting Tulketh Mill on his own account. It will be noticed that bankers, lawyers and cotton spinners had the preponderant influence amongst those whose occupations I can trace; that the Horrocks connection was very strong; and that none of the members of this body was identifiable with the corn and flour dealers whose relative strength in the Directory list is so apparent. Apart from the seedsman, I can find no evidence of the agricultural influence at all. Only further scratting around in newspapers and solicitors’ records would establish the true pattern of connections between the Corporation and the various interests in the town. As it stands, the evidence suggests that the Corporation as composed in 1825 was functionally best qualified for the protection of property. Given its control of the magistracy and the law governing relations between masters and servants, the Corporation almost looks like an adjunct to the management of the principal cotton manufacturing firms. For the actual behaviour of the magisterial arm of the Corporation under strain in 1826, see chapter II below.
If the Corporation was restricted, in both membership and responsibilities, the Improvement Commission was open: to property owners. By the Act of 1815 (10) the following were authorised to act as Commissioners: (i) the mayor and aldermen for the time being, (ii) owners of property worth £100 a year, (iii) all tenant innkeepers, victuallers etc of property worth £100 a year, and (iv) all other tenants of property worth £100 a year. The Act gave them powers adequate at the time to light, pave and police the town, and to tax property for that purpose, rates on tenants under £7 per annum to be paid by their landlords. The limitations of the Act as an instrument for controlling the physical environment of a large town were not apparent to contemporaries until the mid 1830s (see chapter V), and in the 1820s it seemed rather to provide, as the Corporation did not, opportunities for progressive and enlightened men (11) to exercise their talents as amateur ‘improvers’. Thus it was from the first closely connected with the Gas Light Company (12), and engaged the interest of men such as Joseph Livesey.
Under the Act the meetings were held on the first Monday of every month, but Livesey recalled that ‘every Thursday we had a tour of inspection’. Individual initiative was balanced by the watchfulness of the potential majority of wealthier ratepayers: ‘I would often go ahead of my coadjutors, and but for them holding me back, I should have incurred more expense than was justifiable,’ recommending ‘such alterations as I thought the town required, especially in the back streets.’ (13) Livesey claimed chief responsibility for opening out Orchard Street (from Friargate to the Orchard) and for ‘ moving back the shops where Lord Derby’s stables stood’. The advantages and the limitations of this organ of local administration may be conveniently summarised in Livesey’s words:
Many a dirty corner I got cleaned out – pig sties and other nuisances removed … but when … you have parties to deal with who are conservators of dirt, and … persons who are afraid of incurring expense, you can only get on slowly. (14)
In the circumstances of the day, the Improvement Commission was a nicely judged means of drawing upon the talents for disinterested public work among the wealthier elite without either the religious or constitutional exclusiveness of the Corporation or the inhibiting effects of election. Given the prevailing identification of fitness to lead with possession of property, it opened the way for the leaders to lead. It suited Joseph Livesey, who succeeded as a self-appointed commissioner (as in most other roles to which he appointed himself) but failed as an elected Councillor. The politics of the Improvement Commission were simple: it was not political.
The poor’s affairs were managed by the Vestry, comprised in theory (and at times to come in fact), of all the poor-rate paying inhabitants, but since 1820 under the Sturges Bourne Acts by a more exclusive and controllable body, the Select Vestry. It was this body above all which bore the brunt of the population explosion in Preston in the 1820s. The first half-yearly Report of the Select Vestry, 31 October 1820 (15) shows strenuous and apparently successful efforts to improve efficiency and reduce expenditure: immediate action to collect rates which were greatly in arrears led to the recovery of £479; ‘resident relief’ – ‘paid to paupers and their families for long periods’ (presumably outdoor relief) – was reduced from £60 – £65 to £45 – £40 per week, and other expenses in proportion, with a gratifying reduction of rates from 1/3d in May 1820 to 9d by October. From then on, 9d appears to have been regarded as an acceptable level, 1/3d as an intolerable burden, and 12d as a justifiable cause of protest. At the same time the Select Vestry initiated a campaign against immigrants, or at least against pauper families not legally settled in Preston, who mistakenly believed their renting of houses gave them right of settlement. One Samuel Bolton and his family, of Queen Street, ordered to be removed, lost his appeal at the Sessions.
This decision,’ the Report commented, ‘determines the settlement of a great number of paupers who have rented houses in Queen Street under similar circumstances.
The remark that ‘at least £300’ had been paid to paupers supposed to have acquired settlements by renting houses in that street alone, suggests both that the phenomenon was of such a scale that the pursuit of the policy would have been incompatible with the rate of growth of the town, and that a high proportion of this pauperism must have stemmed rather from low wages than from idleness. These impressions are confirmed by a draft petition to the House of Commons against a Bill to prevent the removal of the poor (16) which ‘will impose a very serious and permanent additional Burthen upon the Inhabitants’. Preston was ‘a considerable manufacturing town’ increasing in population rapidly, ‘in consequence of the great influx of persons who seek for Employment there’. The number who would be rendered irremoveable by the Bill would be ‘incalculable’.
General Reports of March 1821 and 1822 (17) show steady reductions of expenditure (£7,966 to £6,655) and in numbers in the Workhouse (180 in 1820, 153 in 1821, and 104 in 1822) but these are possibly as much a reflection of improving economic conditions as of Select Vestry.
The framework and the policy of poor law administration was thereby virtually completed, in the form in which it met the radical 1830s. There would appear to have been sufficient division of responsibilities, between magistrates, overseers, Select Vestry, and General Vestry, to have created the conditions for the battles that were to come.
There was a clear difference between the membership of the Corporation on one hand and the men who were active in the affairs of the Improvement Commission and the Vestry on the other. Whereas the largest millowners were members of the Corporation (three of the Horrocks family, Thomas Miller and William Taylor, along with Jacson, the senior and junior John Paleys, William Ainsworth and Thomas German and his partner William Petty), only Taylor figures in the affairs of either of the other bodies in 1825.
It is significantly more difficult to find the occupations of the twenty members of the Select Vestry by running a finger casually down the Directory list of ‘Gentry. (etc)’: they were on the margin of that class and have to be hunted amongst the trades (18). Five were cotton men, only two of them, including Taylor, identified with mills; the other three were warehouse cambric manufacturers employing handloom weavers. None was a banker but two were banker’s clerks. The others (as far as they are identifiable) included two woollen drapers, a grocer, a joiner and builder, a plasterer, a plumber, a tea dealer and tobacco manufacturer, and one ‘joiner (weavers)’. Chairman of the General Vestry which elected these men was Samuel Crane, linen draper and tea dealer (19) who chaired a Commissioners’ meeting next month.
Identification of active Improvement Commissioners presents a similar problem, but in this case membership lacks fixed definition. They turned up when it suited them, like the mayor, Nicholas Grimshaw, who came in April 1825 ([?]) to plead for improvement of Marsh Lane on behalf of his nephews who owned property there, but normally left business in the hands of a conscientiously regular minority. Thomas Clarke, for example, the most regular chairman for at least twenty years up to 1847, was a Church Street woollen draper, and at the meeting attended by Grimshaw rapidly silenced an unnamed commissioner who complained about expenditure, by telling him he should have attended meetings and voted against grants of money.
If anything, the Select Vestrymen and the Commissioners were hostile to the master manufacturers. In June 1825 Peter Haydock insinuated that expensive plans for improvements of the workhouse were advanced to serve the convenience of master manufacturers who were discharging their hands at that time (20); and in 1834 Isaac Wilcockson objected to the omission of factories from a new plan of rate assessment – ‘factory property… ought to be assessed at the highest description of property’. (21)
The Corporation did not tax the inhabitants, while the Vestry and the Commission, which did, though efficient and conscientious within their limits, lacked weight.