Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: chapter 4.1

Reform of the Old Corporation

See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings

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1. Reform of the Old Corporation

A Petition of the Freemen and Burgesses of the borough of Preston; and Henry Blackhurst, of the borough of Preston gentleman, … read; praying the House to pass such a Bill as will relieve the present Mayors and Aldermen of the Municipal Corporations of their magisterial duties… will prevent the Corporation property from being wasted and misapplied, and will vest the election of all the members of Corporations in the persons entitled .to vote at elections of (MPs): so that Corporations may be placed under vigilant popular control, and become, what they were in fact intended to be, for the benefits of the inhabitants at large. (1)

Although the Corporation did not associate itself with the Freemen and Burgesses in this petition to the House of Commons, it had cheerfully cooperated with the Municipal Corporation Commission when commissioners Fortunatus Duerris and Sampson August Rumball took evidence and opinion in September 1833 (2). Indeed the tone of the comments of the mayor, John Addison (3), was that of a man welcoming the prospect of relief from restricting and burdensome traditions. The Council, he said, ‘might be considered a self-elected body. This was not satisfactory’ (4). The system as described in the Report appears neither better nor worse than that prevailing in many ancient boroughs, and has been described above as self-elected.

The members of the Corporation themselves were not averse to a measure of reform, and probably expected a measure which, like the Reform Act itself, would be designed to conserve rather than replace a pattern already established. Addison himself had made the comparison: ‘he considered it desirable that a harmony should exist in the institutions of the country, and should therefore prefer giving the power of election to the same class of voters… as the Reform Act… namely the £10 householders’ (5). The publication of Dr Fraser’s two books on urban politics (6) has made it unnecessary to include here all the details of an earlier draft of this part of my thesis. In most respects the Preston movement for municipal reform confirms his general judgment that ‘parliamentary and municipal reform were but two horses in the same harness’ (7). The public meetings on corporation reform were like those on parliamentary reform on a reduced scale. Again the debate began in the Corn Exchange (June) and was continued, when the Bill was checked in the Lords, on the Radical meeting ground outside the Blackamoor’s Head. The leading speakers included Robert Segar, Joseph Livesey, Robert Ascroft and Joseph Mitchell.

The most significant (apparent) difference was that this time there was no obvious division between politically distinct social classes. The June meeting in the Corn Exchange was ‘almost exclusively of the working classes’ (8), and Joseph Mitchell was so much in harmony with Segar that he proposed the vote of thanks to the mayor ‘because it was generally said that he (Mr Mitchell) was to be the next mayor (a laugh)’ (9) – such a joke at his own political reputation would have been impossible in 1832. The leadership drifted slightly to the left in the autumn of 1835, but the issue was obvious: on the mayor’s refusal to allow the use of the Corn Exchange for the meeting, Richard Arrowsmith (a Roman Catholic banker) remarked that the Tories ‘did not want any one of those present to become a mayor, or an alderman, or a councillor’ 10). Fraser’s view of the municipal revolution intended by this Whig measure was perfectly expressed by Robert Segar’s comment on a boast made at a recent Corporation dinner at the Red Lion:

They here declared that they were all on one side – all blue (cheers and laughter). It would not… be surprising, if, in a short time, they would all be on the other side (hear). (11)

Apart from this political alteration, reformers looked to municipal reform to achieve two other objects. One was to reward the upwardly socially mobile with the dignity of local authority: Richard Arrowsmith

saw many (at the meeting) who had raised themselves to stations of eminence from their industry, integrity, and uprightness… These were the sort of men… who were the most proper persons for them to choose to manage their local affairs (12).

The other object was a more efficient administration, and quite a different relationship between corporation and urban society. If it was true that the Corporation was deeply involved in debt, said Segar, then

they should sell their farms and pay off their debts… and their patronage would be wholesomely diminished. If their local affairs were well regulated, many improvements might be effected out of the Corporate fund, without, perhaps, the heavy taxation imposed by Police Commissioners. They might then, perhaps, be able to build a new market if they wanted it; to keep the streets clean, without the present amount of police taxes; and to put some other streets in repair besides Fishergate Lane and some other fashionable thoroughfares (hear, and a laugh) which were attended to while others, equally important to as large a class of the community, were left even without sewers and neglected (hear, and cheers). He should expect, indeed, a general improvement of the town from the new Corporation whom they should elect; and if not they could turn them out (13).

In fact, the Act (14) made little immediate difference to the responsibilities of the Corporation, with the important exception of transferring control of the police from the Improvement Commissioners to the Council with power to lay a watch rate. It also separated the magisterial function from the corporate body, but with what seems to have been a rather delicate gentlemen’s agreement that the Council should have the right of recommending men to the Home Secretary for appointment as magistrates. Of the immediate effects of the Act one might say that by allocating to reformed corporations only one statutory responsibility – for the police – it was faithful to the liberal ideal of local self government, leaving the initiative in any other enterprise to the corporations themselves. On the other hand, it did so little to disturb the existing ad hoc pattern of local administration that it is hard to classify the function of the reformed corporations as local government at all. Robert Segar clearly expected, or gave the impression that he expected, that the Corporation would take over the responsibilities of the Improvement Commissioners. Possibly the need for a radical breach of tradition in this respect was not so generally apparent in 1835 as it was after the publication of Chadwick’s Report in 1842. But the failure of the Whig government to deal with the function as thoroughly as it did with the composition of the corporations it reformed supports the historical and contemporary Judgments that it was only a political job. It also led to fifteen years of sanitary stalemate in Preston (see chapter V).

Locally, the impetus for reform had come from those who might together be designated ‘the popular party’: whigs, liberals, Radicals and their following among the ‘working classes’. Assessment of their success in obtaining representation in the reformed Corporation, and analysis of the actual composition of the early Victorian council in Preston, depends on the degree to which it was determined by the rules of the game as laid down by the Act and the Commissioners.

For the long-since meaningless (or almost meaningless) category of ‘freemen’, whose rights with respect to the Corporation had shrunk to a matter of pasturing cattle on the common land of the Moor or the Marsh (which in any case the Corporation disregarded), the Act substituted the new, real, and restrictive distinction between ‘burgesses’ and the rest of the inhabitants. ‘The burgess roll… was limited to occupiers of rateable property in the borough residing within seven miles of it, who had paid rates for the previous two and a half years’ (15). The effect of this last condition in the period of Preston’s most rapid growth by immigration is obvious. Less obvious but far more restrictive was the fact that as a matter of convenience in practice the smallest, and most numerous, rates were collected not from the tenants but from the landlords, so that although the occupiers of the smallest properties actually paid rates ‘compounded’ with their rents, they were not legally ‘ratepayers’, and therefore not included on the burgess roll until the introduction of the Small Tenements Rating Act in 1853. This provided that no person whose rates were paid by his landlord should be thereby disfranchised. But by a legal anomaly resulting from a previous Act (16) it enfranchised only tenants of houses worth £6 a year and under, excluding about 1,800 tenants of houses in the band between £6 and £10, ‘among them some of the most intelligent, respectable and well conducted of the operative class’ (17), an injustice which was corrected only in 1858.

Dr Hennock has shown that in 1841 the municipal electorate of Birmingham was a mere 3%, and of Leeds 10%, of their total population.

More meaningful comparisons would be with the adult male population, the parliamentary franchise, or the total number of ratepayers. The table below shows the number of burgesses in the first year of the new system, in the years before and after the admission of smaller compounding ratepayers (1852 and 1853) and before and after the admission of the rest (1857 and 1858) with their percentage in relation to the above comparisons.

Table 8. Municipal franchise: relative size at different dates

Year Total burgesses % of pop. % of adult males % of parlt. franchise % of ratepayers
1836 2,369 5.8 33 63 31
1852 1,892 2.7 14 65.7 not known
1853 4,484 6.1 31 158 not known
1857 4,385 5.6 28 160 not known
1858 5,728 7.3 37 209 not known

(Sources: Burgess lists in Harris Library; newspapers; census reports and extrapolation therefrom; pollbooks 1837, 1852, 1857.)

These figures show that the municipal electorate was as small in relation to the total population as in Hennock’s towns, but that it was a much more substantial proportion of adult males who might have been expected, by the most liberal thinking of the age, to have been enfranchised: a third in 1836 and nearly a third in the 1850s. A peculiarity which at present I cannot explain is the absolute and relative decline between 1836 and 1852. But perhaps the most striking comparison is with the parliamentary franchise. The Reform Act reduced the parliamentary electors of Preston ‘as they fell into their graves’ (18), so that although in 1836 the municipal electorate was the less ‘popular’, comprising less than two thirds of the parliamentary electorate, the effect of the Small Tenements Rating Act in 1853 was to reverse this relationship. For every ten who could vote for MPs, sixteen could vote for councillors in 1853, and twenty in 1858. Quite apart from local political issues in the 1850s, the very breadth of the electorate was likely to focus frustrated popular political activity on municipal elections from 1853. The experience of municipal electioneering reflected this (see below).

Just as the Act and subsequent legislation determined the nature of the municipal electorate, the Commissioners determined the social and geographical representation of the community in the Council by the drawing of the ward boundaries. The Council was composed of forty eight representatives, divided between six wards, each ward contributing two aldermen and six councillors. The boundaries of these wards are shown on the map, and the number of burgesses in each ward at different dates in the table below.

Map of municipal wards in Preston in 1835
Map 5. Municipal wards established in 1835

Table 9. Number of burgesses at selected dates

Jan ’36 Nov ’36 1837/8 1853 1857 1858
St. John’s 465 525 511 678 632 806
Trinity 488 578 555 809 821 1,053
Fishwick 334 410 382 569 587 777
Christ Church 309 341 325 592 602 689
St. George’s 527 576 554 836 776 916
St. Peter’s 246 303 278 1,000 967 1,487
2,369 2,733 2,605 4,484 4,385 5,728

The large initial differences in wealth and social composition between these wards can be roughly estimated from the relative proportions of ratepayers in different classes (19), shown in the histogram below.

chart of ratepayer composition of Preston wards 1835
Fig 7. Difference of ratepayer composition in 1835

The Burgess Lists do not give occupations, but the histograms derived from the parliamentary voters’ list in 1838 (Appendix6 ) show that St. Peter’s ward and Fishwick ward, where the proportion of poorest burgesses was the highest (87.4% and 83.1%) had the smallest number of ‘upper crust’ and the largest number of ‘working class’ occupations. These two wards were also geographically different, for, whereas the boundaries of all the other four adjoined in or close to the town centre, these two were distinctly ‘suburban’. Further comparison, with maps showing the spatial distribution of voting behaviour in 1832 (see above p.116) and 1835 (chapter VI) reveals that the boundaries of St. Peter’s and Fishwick were cleverly drawn so as to include those Districts which were most Radical in 1832 and most Liberal in 1835. The correspondence between ward boundaries and political behaviour at the opposite extreme, Christ Church ward, is even more exact: it was District 6, which polled over 80% Tory in 1832 and 1835, and engulfed most of the new factory district west of the canal between Marsh Lane and Fishergate (20).

Whether intentional or not (proof is lacking but I think intention can be inferred) the effect of this drawing of the ward boundaries was to contain the population most hostile to the Tories within two wards out of the six, so that even if they elected sixteen Radical aldermen and councillors between them, they could do nothing against the wishes of the other four wards. It was a prophylactic design.

Together with the property qualification for candidates in council elections (real or personal property of £1,000 or occupation of premises of £30 rateable value), the rules of the game were fairly heavily weighted in favour of the stable, the respectable, the wealthy and the politically ‘safe’.

The initial response to the unique opportunity of electing 36 councillors all at once might have been political; in fact it was social. The first of the Chronicle‘s many repeated declarations that council affairs were not political told the electors sternly that it was their duty

to divest themselves of party bias and private attachments (and) to reject every attempt to influence them by reference to the religion or politics of the candidates (21).

There was an elaborate attempt to apply this principle early in October, when, on Joseph Bray’s initiative, a meeting was arranged at the Bull Inn in order to concentrate all the interests of the borough on the task of bringing intelligence, wealth and respectability to bear on good government (22). Setting aside his own well known political opinions (Tory) – ‘solely to the good of the town’ – he denied any influence from the old corporation, the cotton trade, political party, personal ambition or ‘interests behind a screen’, and proposed the formation of a ‘general committee for the purpose of securing the election of a respectable town council’.

To judge from the names of the principal speakers, this was a meeting of lawyers, albeit of different political opinions. Thomas Batty Addison was in the chair, and seven other lawyers took a leading part in the discussion including Bray himself, Segar, Haydock and W.O. Pilkington. Two of the largest manufacturers, Swainson and Miller, contributed, and Isaac Wilcockson (proprietor of the Chronicle), and a Catholic corn dealer, George Gradwell, were active in the proceedings.

The purpose of the general committee was to arrange committees in each ward to nominate six candidates for election. For the sake of at least the appearance of perfect impartiality no previously prepared list of nominations for this general committee was presented. Instead, six gentlemen of various political opinions were proposed by the meeting to retire to another room to draw up a list of twelve for the general committee. After twenty minutes these gentlemen returned with the list which was adopted. There could hardly have been a better demonstration that local leadership of all respectable political opinions could, and did, act as a single community. The members of this general committee were: (23)

Table 10. Compos1tlon of Municipal Reform general committee in 1835

John Bairstow Horrocks partner to 1836 Tory C. of E.
Peter Haydock attorney Whig C.of E.
Richard Newsham jun. bank partner Tory C.of E.
Michael Satterthwaite leather cutter/currier Liberal Quaker
Robert Park ironmonger ? ?
George Gradwell corn dealer Liberal R.C.
Joseph Livesey cheese factor and printer Liberal (dissenter)
John Smith gentleman (draper?) Tory ?
Thomas Leach hosier Tory C. of E.
Robert Segar barrister Radical R.C.
R.W. Hopkins attorney Tory C. of E.
John Lawe banker Liberal ?

Two of the speakers who had contributed to this outcome revealed in passing the true relationship between social and political priorities in the minds of those present. Robert Segar had disagreed in principle with the proceedings because

he did not think that a sufficient number of burgesses were present to sanction the formation of such a committee. Those present were chiefly the representatives of the higher classes… It would create hostility out of doors if they proceeded to propose candidates… In the council, there ought… to be persons of all classes of the community; and he regretted that hitherto though there were many eligible persons amongst the working classes, none of them had yet found their way to office. It did appear to him, that as society now stood, they ought to assist in the election of a few such men… who thus elevated… by  their intercourse with the more polished members… might carry into their own circle the honourable and high minded feelings, and manners of , and at the same time increase their respect for, those of the higher orders (24).

I quote this extensively not because it was typical, but because it was not; in the words of the Chronicle, ‘no one else came forward to address the meeting’. Segar could hardly have expected any other reception for this view of a community, actively including all classes, but the fact that it could publicly expressed at all perhaps justifies my point that what Peter Catterall said shortly afterwards was a pointed contrast:

They could not blind themselves to the fact that there were two parties in the town, and he did not think that those selected should be all on one side (25).

Only moderately careful observation would have shown him four parties (Tory, Whig, Liberal and Radical); and a crude but comprehensive view could not have reduced them to less than three (Tory, Whig or Liberal, and Radical); so the most likely interpretation of Catterall’s ‘two parties’ is that the underlying assumption was that the Radicals were subordinate if not subservient to one or both of the Tories or the Liberals, the parties of leadership; or the rival élites.

Possibly the vision (or illusion) of a community embracing all social classes, reciprocally linked by responsible leadership and respectful emulation, was not incompatible with Peter Catterall’s ruthless realism. It closely resembled Joseph Livesey’s view of society in 1833 (26), and that of the newspaper correspondent ‘Lucius’ in 1829 (27). But the main point here is that what was actually afoot was the attempted consolidation under new constitutional circumstances of a social alienation which some men regarded as both new and dangerous. The purpose of Bray, Addison and others at the meeting was to ensure the continuance of an old familiar hierarchical definition of leadership. The unreformed corporation suddenly acquired retrospective virtues. Parliamentary democracy might be constitutionally shocking, but it was as abstract as it was remote. But municipal democracy might be a local, immediate, visible and personal affront, breaking into the interlocking personal dependencies which constituted Preston society in the 1830s. While a cheese factor or a draper employing two or three might cheerfully risk the hazards of election, John Paley, Thomas Miller, a Swainson or a Birley, could not afford to lose.

Viewed in this light, the preparations for the first council elections are understandable. While it was expected that a real political choice should be offered to the burgesses, the social choice was to be controlled: they hoped that no candidate would get through unless he had been stamped with the lion of respectable approval. The early defeat or extrusion of the reformist lesser men from the council was explained in 1840 in terms of social difference (see Chapter 4.2).

The level of municipal electioneering over the twenty five years 1835-60 shows a clear pattern in three phases. The initial excitement of 1835-6 was followed by three years of intense activity (some of it behind the scenes) which removed the undesirable elements. There was then a long quiet period, with few contests for seats in the council, the only significant changes being the admission of a few of the politically active Liberal cotton manufacturers (George Smith, John Goodair and John Hawkins) and one young legal careerist (James German) to a council dominated by the established manufacturing and legal elite. Finally, with increase in burgesses in 1853, there was a marked revival of political activity; and of the excitements and corruptions of popular electioneering. The graph shows the pattern.

Chart of ward contests in Preston 1836-60
Fig 8. Municipal contests 1836-60

Although contemporary newspapers gave very full accounts of meetings and events concerning the town as a whole, the ear of the press rarely bent down as far as the miniature world of the wards, so detailed information about the process of weeding out fit and proper candidates for the first municipal elections is not available. We see only the products. According to the plan of the October meeting, ward committees began to produce two approved lists of candidates, one for each of the assumed ‘two parties’, Conservative and Reform, but the harmonious management of political difference soon broke down. St. John’s, St. George’s, and Fishwick each produced two approved lists of acceptable men. But in Christ Church ward the first two lists were followed by a third, and in Trinity, despite the Chronicle‘s smug observation that ‘there have been no party divisions’ (28), and the efforts of Isaac Wilcockson, the committee chairman, to maintain an undivided list of twelve, by 12th December there were four lists of six. According to the Pilot ‘… small clubs of burgesses are now issuing lists so frequently that it now seems a test of skill how to get any councillors appointed’ (29). The contrasting lists throw a revealing light on the nature of the contest. Cotton and flax spinners, and manufacturers known to have been millowners, were overwhelmingly on the conservative side (13 to 2), but ‘manufacturers’ who were apparently not millowners, or who were just building mills (John Hawkins, for example) tended to the Reform side (4 to 1). Corn dealers and maltsters, with one exception, were all in the Reform lists (8 in the provisional and 5 in the final lists). Lawyers were evenly divided (30)

Fishwick and St. Peter’s, the two cotton wards with a Radical reputation, produced totally different kinds of choice, Fishwick’s alternative lists contained equal numbers of cotton men but with Samuel Horrocks jun. and Thomas Miller sen. on the conservative side. ‘The parties to both lists wish to be regarded in the light of reformers’, the Chronicle implausibly observed (31). The St. Peter’s lists on the other hand showed the most extreme contrast: five cotton or flax spinners on one side, and four shopkeepers (two drapers and two provision dealers) on the other. The Trinity ward committee, of which Isaac Wilcockson was chairman, put forward no cotton candidate at all.

Party differences there may have been, but that was obviously not all. The Chronicle claimed that the ward committees had ‘chosen their men partially and with considerable reference to religious and political circumstances’, and distinguished the second election (of 12 to fill the places of those chosen as aldermen) as ‘the Church list’ and ‘the Anti Church list’. But I think that the Pilot‘s indignation at the ‘impudent braggadocio’ of certain men who ‘suffered themselves to be brought forward… destitute of the qualifications which alone can make (their) appointment credible’ (32) gives a more revealing insight. The Pilot placed the threshold of respectability high. Taking into account the occupational differences between the two lists, I suggest that the early elections to the council were social battles fought across some subtle frontier of class distinction within the ‘middle class’, possibly that which separated the established upper crust from the ‘many who had raised themselves by their own efforts’ – a distinction which may have had little objective validity. But, significantly, it meant a lot to some of the victorious Reform candidates:

Who would have thought to see poor Tom Swindlehurst among the new corporation? Power was descending in some degree from the rich down to the poor… They would chop the rich and chop the poor together… (33)

thus Thomas Swindlehurst himself. Even Joseph Mitchell, now reticent about the crawing and griping disposition of tradesmen, was ‘proud to rank amongst the industrious burgesses of St. ‘Peter’s ward’.

The complete list of this first reformed Council shows that the Reformers, as Joseph Livesey commented at the time, had ‘made an auspicious beginning’; but that Segar’s hope that ‘they would all be on the other side’ had been disappointed. Among the 48 there were seven of the old corporation (only eight had contested). As far as hard and fast political identification is either realistic or possible, 26 were Tories, two or three were Whigs, thirteen were ‘Reformers’ or Liberals, and six were Radicals. The labels are not particularly helpful, however, because the Pilot firmly classified all possible Tories as friends and ‘respectable’, and others as enemies (34)

radicalism cannot divest itself of the deformity of ingratitude… made hideous in its deformity by the meanness of its insolence… We felt that (the town) was threatened to have its fair name soiled by the leprous spots of radical domination’ [singling out for particular comment] ‘the pitiful delusion which the influence of radical domination has produced in St. Peter’s ward… can it be supposed that a more dogged obstinacy in opposing the introduction of councillors who being respectable would have their opinions in the council respected can be expected … in the future elections in this ward? (35).

In this. temper the Pilot was heedless of the distinctions in politics and respectability within the ‘Reform’ party, not only between the Whiggish liberalism of the attorney and former alderman James Dixon and the Radicalism of Joseph Mitchell, but also within the small group of Radicals themselves. Livesey, Mitchell and Segar were three different kinds of ‘Radical’, and John Noble was shortly to be found among the Chartists.

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