Reform of the Old Corporation
3. Municipal Electioneering: changes of character 1836-60
Council elections were held each autumn (late October or early November). In theory one third of the councillors retired each year, so that in a perfectly active and responsive municipality, there might be contests for twelve seats, two in each ward, every year. In fact this happened only in the first year; in only six of the next twenty four years were half the available seats contested. Even the modest proportion of a quarter was reached only thirteen times. As the graph shows, seats in the council were contested in 1836-39 and in 1853 and after.
The elections of the first three years determined the relationship between the community and the council until 1853: they diminished it. Reformers, Catholics, shopkeepers and men of lower social status lost the early struggles over the respectability of the council’s membership, conceived politically, confessionally, and above all socially. The result was less correspondence between the ‘interests’ of the town and those represented in the council; and instead of a Whig revolution almost a conservative monopoly of council seats.
This was perhaps the reason for the heavy fall in the registration of burgesses. There were 841 (or 31%) fewer burgesses in 1852 than in 1836. Relative to the size of the population, the municipal franchise, only 5.8% in 1836, had fallen by more than half, to 2.7% in 1852. The new Corporation which Robert Segar had expected to be open to ‘all classes of the community’, became effectively closed, and not in fact very different from the old Corporation. The elections of 1840 ‘did not appear to excite the least interest or attention’ (49) and in 1841 ‘Nothing of any public interest occurred’ (50) – because, of course, there were no contests in either year.
This result was achieved by both fair means, which were reported by the press, and foul, which can only be inferred. The fair included the usual applications of drink, money, street demonstrations, and violence. In 1836, the last time there were contests in every ward,
from very early in the morning, the din of preparation was heard in almost every part of the town. Although the morning was foggy and damp, bands of music, preceded by flags, and followed by crowds of people, were seen parading the streets, and manifesting, in every direction, those symptoms of “movement” and anxiety, which generally portend some “coming event” (51).
The Chronicle reported that parties on both sides of the contests were trying ‘to demonstrate to the half, or wholly drunken burgesses, the beerish impropriety, or golden (perhaps silver) indiscretion of voting for the other side’ (52). The Tory Pilot, for reasons of its own, was less informative about the electioneering practices of 1836, but in 1837, having realised that reports of corruption might be put to advantage as evidence that the ‘rash legislation’ (i.e. the Municipal Corporations Act) was the ‘source of evils of the most corrupting character’, it lost its inhibitions, and reported the ‘bargain and sale of votes by both parties’, the Trinity election being ‘more like betting on a cockfight than the noble discharge of a great public trust’, while in Fishwick the voters were ‘beastly drunk’, drunken brutes staggering over the burial ground of Grimshaw Street chapel (the school was the polling place) (53).
The application of bribes, beer, and even beef stew (54) to the burgesses who were, after all, not only the minority of the population but the richest minority, is surprising at first sight; but the non-electors also participated in these early elections in their own way. In 1836 in Trinity ward ‘the band and followers of Mr Clayton (Tory banker) and a section of the opposite partizans (for Segar and the Catholic grocer William Holmes) accidently came into collision’ in Lord Street, the damage done in the disturbance was ‘not serious… a few slight head wounds’. There was a similar event in Church Stree, but the ‘great centres of excitement’ were St. George’s and St. Peter’s wards
Where the appeared to be a coalition of forces for the purposes of quarrel and combat, … who mutually made Friargate the focus for exhibiting their combined prowess… many of the Irishmen employed at the railway, influenced by persuasion or bribe, had been induced to take part in. it… to distort a mere election squabble into the excesses of a brutal riot… We… found about seventy men, apparently either drunk or mad, flourishing huge blugeons over their heads…’ (55).
After smashing the windows of the Lamb and Packet public house they then beat up the five police ‘with the most ungovernable fury’, and a number of onlookers.
The issue in St. Peter’s ward in 1836, the defence of two Reform seats (by a maltster and a handloom manufacturer) against two Tory cotton spinners, was not in doubt despite the violence, but in St. George’s the retiring councillors were a Reformer, the corn dealer William Humber jun., and a Tory cotton spinner, each of whom took a running mate; on the Reform side, a friend bf Joseph Livesey, in opposition to church rates and Easter dues, the tea dealer Thomas Dowson; and on the Tory side the attorney John Armstrong. The Tories won both seats. In 1837 the retiring Reformer was defeated in circumstances which elicited particular comment in both the Chronicle and the Pilot: Mr Barker, reported the Pilot, as a master cotton spinner having his mill in that ward, ‘no mean advantage on the occasion of an election where local interest and influence are much needed. And who was his successful opponent? Why, the President of the Operative Conservative Association…’ (56). ‘A Canvasser’ described in the Chronicle the exact measure of the defeat of Barker, in terms of 229 promises, 149 votes, and 73 who had changed sides, attributing this betrayal to ‘the corruption of that day… the great weight of influence brought into the field against Mr Barker’, and ‘the liberality of the Grimshaw Street “Holy Hand” ‘ (57).
The Operative Conservative Association was probably involved in the general election riots of 1837 (see chapter VI). It’s president in 1840 was that John Armstrong elected for St. George’s in 1836, on whose re-election in 1839 the Pilot commented as follows:-
his indefatigable exertions in remedying the derangements of a temporary radical-dominancy in one or two of the wards, have not only made him well known, but… nearly universally feared. He is none of your milk and water men in pursuing his electioneering purposes, he either gains his object or he puts it beyond the power of any tongue to wag a reproach that he had left undone aught that was in the power of man to perform (58).
Given the standards of the time and that the Pilot’s intention was to praise the man, the inference is fairly sinister. In 1838 Armstrong was accused of fixing in advance the election of John Paley sen., and was therefore almost certainly the person responsible for arranging that alderman John Noble should be ousted from the council (by not being re-elected alderman) because he had supported the Chartists and the freemen (59).
A peculiarity of this early phase of council elections is the number of Reformers who uncharacteristically lost their municipal ambitions: in 1835 two in St. John’s ward ‘were induced to withdraw their pretensions’ (60), two retiring Radicals in St. Peter’s ward ‘did not seek re-election’ in 1837, and in St. George’s the re-elected Richard Arkwright had ‘consented for the future not to be conspicuous in his advocacy of Whig or Radical principles’ (60). In 1838 Joseph Livesey, ‘the very god of idolatry of the silly worshippers in the… temple of reform… evinced the good sense to withdraw’ (Pilot) or ‘declined to serve again’ (Chronicle); Robert Segar retired ‘for good’, John Horn ‘retired’; Joseph Walker and Josiah Barker in St. John’s were mysteriously ‘inactive in their own interest’ (61). It was not in Joseph Mitchell’s nature to retire, but he and Tom Swindlehurst were trounced in the polling for St. Peter’s ward by two conservatives (a millwright and a coal merchant).
The Pilot‘s concluding observation on the 1836 elections was ‘we would have the watchword of the Corporations to be that of the ‘Prentice Boys of Derry – “No Surrender!” ‘ (62) but a correspondent in the Chronicle in 1840 admitting that ‘sectarian feelings have also had not a little to do with the matter’, explained the rapid change in the character of the council in terms of divisions within the Reform Party, mainly social divisions:-
councillors not of the highest ranks in society were appointed (at the first election). The would-be aristocrats were unwilling to resign the management of the borough to their inferiors or share it with them and it suited not their dignity to herd with men who were so much below them in station and were not their tools or nominees… The contest… degenerated from a political one into one between the rich and those who were comparatively poor… An oligarchy is precisely the form of government which prevails in Preston (63).
The few contests of the next phase, which lasted from 1840 to 1853, are difficult to place in relation to the community. Some were fierce but not ‘political’ in the party sense. For example, in 1844 all five candidates in St. George’s ward were Conservatives, and the result was the humiliation of three textile employers by an artist and an attorney; and in Fishwick, where only one of the sitting Conservative members, the surgeon Lawrence Spencer, was seeking re-election, and the cotton spinners Charles Swainson jun., Conservative, and William Ainsworth of Church Street Mills, Liberal, contested, there was ‘a paper war’ between the two Conservatives. Similar in-fighting between Conservatives occurred in St. George’s in 1845, Trinity in 1846, Christ Church in October and Fishwick in November 1847. All these cases suggest personal rivalries within an oligarchy, coloured perhaps by hostility to the cotton interest, but no longer expressive of either the political or the social interests of the town at large, despite such ‘strenuous exertions’ as flags, music, meat and drink, and ‘bottling’, by which Thomas Birchall, one of the Deputy Clerks of the Peace, overcame the corn dealer John Humber in 1847 (64). Not that the elections of the 1840s were devoid of political interest. Thomas Miller jun., the greatest of Preston’s cotton lords and a free trade Liberal, swept aside Philip Addison of the Operative Conservative Association in Fishwick in 1843, and in 1845 two Conservative millowners (Riley and W.B. Swainson) were beaten in the same ward by William Ainsworth and Henry Miller. The young Liberal barrister James German arrived in Christ Church in 1846, partly as a result of local reaction against the influence of ‘the Committee’ which put forward two Conservatives; and George Smith, liberal millowners, was brought into St. Peter’s ward ‘at the request of a number of electors’, in place of Francis Sleddon, Conservative millowner, in the same a year (65).
The most interesting of these otherwise boring years was 1847, the year of the Liberal party’s unambiguous success in a Preston parliamentary election (see chapter VI). At first ‘no interest was felt in the elections, or any excitement evinced’ except in St. Peter’s ward, where 146 burgesses signed a requisition to the Liberal cotton spinner John Hawkins ‘desirous of having the interests of the ward in the Town’s Council represented by a person resident and connected’ with the ward; and shortly afterwards a meeting at the Ship Inn decided to bring forward a second candidate:
Mr JOHN GOODAIR, a resident in the ward-and an employer who had contributed to the welfare of the labouring portion of the operatives of the borough in the present depressed state of trade…’ (66).
(In May when 20 of the 46 mills in town had been working short time or closed, Hawkins’ Greenbank mill and Goodair’s Brookfield, employing a thousand between them, had still been working full time (67)) ‘The public houses were opened, a band of music played, and there were the other attendants of a general election’ (68); and Hawkins and Goodair were elected. An extraordinary vacancy in Trinity ward immediately afterwards therefore attracted an extraordinary degree of political attention, and although the Liberal candidate Lawrence Dobson had been requisitioned by 204 out of 430 burgesses, ‘the ward was deluged with old electioneers’ from most of the other wards of the town, a Conservative, Thomas Walker (tobacco manufacturer), was hastily pushed forward, ‘all the… influences‘ drink, food and money were applied, and after a struggle during which Pole Street was ‘crowded with partizans’ and the contestants never more than six votes apart, Walker won by 193 to 187. The victor publicly declared ‘I had not the slightest ambition… I never took a single step on my own behalf’, and then set off in procession to take a ‘sumptuous repast’ with Alderman Monk, one of the Assessors at the poll, at the Shelley’s Arms – dining place of the Operative Conservatives (69).
The mid-1840s were a municipal watershed, full of uncertainties. There were doubts whether the Council should have a political character; about its composition, whether honorary or functional; about the proper uses of its meagre resources; and, above all, about the apportionment of responsibility for the desperate needs of the community between the Corporation and the Improvement Commissioners. ‘Preston is fortunate in having a non-political Corporation … we hope the taint of political partizanship will never cross the threshold of the Town Hall’ (70) observed the Liberal Chronicle rather oddly viewing the Conservative monopoly in 1845. But in 1847 the Pilot, drawing attention to the contrast between the political character of the Council and that of the town as a whole, observed of the Corporation that ‘… of the forty seven… there are thirty four Conservatives, and thirteen only… distinguished by some other political party name’ (71). The next year the Chronicle itself had lost its hygienic principles:- ‘we may state thirty to be Conservatives and fourteen Liberals; the remaining four being less decided partizans’ (72).
On the function of council membership, the Guardian remarked in 1846 that at the break up of ‘the old monopoly of municipal pomp… everybody was rushing to occupy the seats… But… the new aspirants soon found that the honours… depended solely on their own activity and utility… accordingly the rage for municipal service … has finally relapsed into comparative indifference’ (73) and reminded the burgesses of their responsibility to elect ‘practical business men who know the town, and have a capacity and disposition to promote its improvements’ (74). The burgesses should consider, said the Chronicle in 1845, ‘whether candidates are really interested in promoting the welfare of the town… (or) look upon their election as mere honorary testimonies of private esteem’ (75) while the Pilot in 1846 was satisfied that the Council was ‘not attractive to demagogues… gentlemen seeking re- election find they can dispense with empty protestations and mock: pretensions’ (76). Sociological finessing might prove that a practically useless Corporation nevertheless served an important social function in relation to the community as a whole, but the weight of contemporary opinion suggests that while this was a recognised possibility, it was treated with utilitarian derision. The root of the problem was not uncertainty of social definition, but mismanagement, organisational confusion, and a huge disparity between traditional expectations, statutory authority, and public resources, on one hand, and the future needs of the community on the other. If the nature of the problem had been clear, its solution would have come to mind much more quickly. But the Preston Guardian took a whole year to make the step from the first to the second of the following perceptions. In November 1845 the paper could not agree with ‘hasty persons… who could not see of what use the reformed Corporation had been as they had done nothing for the town’ (77). The writer (probably Joseph Livesey) thought there was still much to be done, and listed twelve outstanding tasks for the Council: improvements to the markets and the Corn Exchange rooms, agricultural improvements on the Corporation farms and the moor, and the need for cheaper gas and water, for public baths, for a public cemetery, and for the suppression of ‘nuisances’. In October 1846 the same paper commented on a recent meeting of the Improvement Commissioners that
It would seem… that our view of consolidating the Town Council and the Improvement Commission into one body, was taken up by several of the speakers… Though we have two numerous bodies, amounting together to upwards of 200 persons of property and standing, yet the rising importance of the town is feebly provided for (78).
In retrospect the advance in thinking looks small, but the conceptual distance travelled was great. For reasons which will be elaborated in the next chapter, I suggest that the three years from 1844 to 1847 (from the Report on the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts to Lord Morpeth’s Public Health Bill) were the critical threshold of acceptance of the implications of urban growth, and that the threshold was far steeper in prospect than it appears when we look back over it.
In Preston this threshold roughly coincides with a change in municipal electioneering which brought the Council into-closer relationship with the urban community. It was not a simple matter of cause and effect. Obviously the huge rise in collective expenditure on improvements such as sewerage helped to make municipal elections more sensitive. But other changes were at work, some of which began before the Local Board of Health proved that its operations would be larger than the Improvement Commissioners’. The first was the recognition that elections would be fought in political terms, between Liberals and Conservatives; the next, open hostility to the cotton interest; and the third the appearance of that phenomenon observed by James Bryce, ‘political feeling that… sometimes degenerates into the mere spirit of faction, which converts things indifferent into grounds of quarrel’ (79). All of these can be observed in council elections from about 1848.
Less easy to prove or measure would be the influence on contemporary perceptions of changes in the townscape. About 1840 the built fabric of Preston was still recognisably that of a smallish 18th century market town, and more than half of its 35 cotton mills were in the fields beyond the outer ends of its streets. By 1860 another 28 cotton mills and 65% more houses had been built, the characteristic Victorian gridiron of small terraces spreading northwards over St. Peter’s ward, and eastwards in Trinity and Fishwick, engulfing the semi-rural mills, creating little towns within a town, and adding the smoke of another five thousand hearths to that of the mill chimneys (80). The growing industrial town of the 1850s was a bigger and darker reality than the market town of the 1830s.
The issues of the two contests of 1849 were clear to the participants, if less so to the historian, bands flags, parades and treating being brought into play for the sake of unseating the Liberal and Catholic George Corry in St. John’s ward, while in St. George’s, ‘the only ward in which political feeling was an element in the contest’, a fortnight’s canvassing, nightly meetings, treating at public houses, and ‘as much excitement as at a borough election’ (flags waving, music, parading) expressed both popular political feeling – ”the Conservatives, as a body, supporting Mr Threlfall and Mr Smith, the Liberal party generally voting for Mr Lawe and Mr Bryning’ – and burgess reaction to the quiet oligarchic system:- ‘perhaps the principal (motive) was a desire to break through the system of a certain “committee” in the ward assuming the right of nominating the councillors’. 295 of the 333 burgesses in the ward cast their votes, some reputedly for as much as £3 and £5, the Chronicle reporting that the election had cost the candidates £1,000, ‘Mr Lawe’s return, besides being a party triumph, has been a successful attack on a system of clique nomination that has too long prevailed in St. George’s ward’ (81).
Both the reactions against a ruling clique and the political partisanship might have occurred in any town, whether growing or otherwise; but movements reported in an election in St. Peter’s ward in November 1850 perhaps marked a renewal of the relationship between municipal politics and the actual character of this community. Unlike the early battles between millowners and shopkeepers, however, when respectability and religion, rather than relationship to the means of production, had been regarded as the real issues, now for the first time the power of ‘the cotton interest’ was mentioned explicitly as a bone of contention. At a meeting of thirty or forty burgesses at the Adelphi Inn on a vacancy in St. Peter’s ward, a painter (Mr Pemberton) ‘urged the burgesses not to allow one class of men to rule the town’, and Thomas Dixon reported that he had been informed ‘that Mr Goodair had said he would return Mr Richard Threlfall without a shilling of expense – Mr Dixon and several other parties described St. Peter’s ward as a sort of close borough…’ (82)
If true, it is strange that Goodair, the leading Liberal, should have made room in his fiefdom for Threlfall, the conservative cotton spinner so expensively displaced from St. George’s ward in the previous year, The Guardian‘s explanation was that
Mr Pearson had been brought out by a party, who believe that “the cotton interest”… has too great a preponderance in the council… resolved to return a gentleman not connected with that “obnoxious” interest. The desperate nature of such a resolution in such a ward… will be evident, when the state that (it) contains no less than 21 cotton-spinning and manufacturing establishments; nearly all of whom, resenting the reflections which had been cast upon their interest, exerted themselves strenuously to secure Mr Threlfall’s return (83).
Such convenient evidence of a reaction against the millowners in 1850 is unfortunately far short of proof, because Thomas Dixon himself bluntly stated the next week
We did not intend to make it a cotton question at all… as the staple trade of the district, the cotton spinners ought to have a considerable voice in the management of municipal affairs’
He had been surprised to find that men ‘professing themselves champions of liberality of opinion’ and whose election he had assisted in 1847 (Goodair and Hawkins) were now ‘assuming the authority of dictating to the burgesses’; and this was ‘the sole reason’ for now opposing them (84).
Whatever the truth in 1850, there seems to have been little doubt that an unexpected contest in St. Peter’s in 1852 was a rebellion against the cotton interest. John Noble (maltster) and John Bryning (grocer), both liberals, nominated at the last minute without warning (or even their own consent) had received by dinner time twice as many votes as the sitting cotton spinner members, Hugh Dawson (Conservative) and George Smith (Liberal), whereupon ‘… many of the “cottonocracy”… now began to stir, probably thinking that the ward, which has within its boundaries half the mills in the town, ought to have as heretofore its whole six representatives members of the staple trade’ (85). Dawson and Smith survived. There were no other contests in 1852.
A similar portent that municipal elections would in future be fought on matters which were real to the community had occurred in February 1852, in the election to fill the seat in St. John’s vacated by Robert Ascroft on his appointment as Town Clerk. J.B. Booth, spindle maker and iron founder, a Catholic and a Liberal, was defeated in a poll of some excitement (music, flags, fights and drunkenness) to the accompaniment of such slogans as ‘No bastile’ (sic), ‘No popery’, ‘No Cardinal Wiseman’; and the victor, Thomas Walmsley (barrister and Conservative) said he had been asked whether he would support a covered market which would cost ‘probably £50,000’, and whether he was ‘in favour of cheap gas and cheap water’. The first in Preston (to my knowledge) to find himself in the trap between the needs of the inhabitants and his accountability to ratepayers, he was probably relieved to be asked ‘if he would advocate all improvements combined with economy’, and to reply that he would, ‘as he supposed everybody would’ (86).
Despite the smallness of the municipal franchise, therefore, strains in the community arising from the changing character of the town were beginning to cause small cracks in the Corporation’s oligarchic security even before 1853. But the combined effects of the Small Tenements Act, which increased the total number of burgesses from 1,892 to 5,728 by 1858 (bringing an influx of cottagers of the lowest class’ (87)), of the Great Strike and Lockout of 1853-54, of the huge rise in municipal spending on sewerage and water supply, of the stabilisation of the Liberal Party, and of the reversed relationship between the municipal and the parliamentary franchises in Preston, broke the oligarchy apart altogether. The cumulative impression of reading the press reports of municipal electioneering from 1853 to 1859 is of the emergence of truly urban political life.
More wards were contested: on average four out of six went to the poll, but this does not take account of settlements ‘out of court’ or of other challenges withdrawn at the last moment. The lowest point was 1855 (two contests), but in 1856 an extraordinary tussle over the question of horse races caused contests in all six wards.
The issues contested were matters of public rather than personal concern. Party rivalry between Conservatives and Liberals, which may have been implicit more often than it was made explicit, was particularly remarked in Trinity and St. John’s wards in 1853, in Fishwick in 1854, it was a powerful element in St. Peter’s in 1857, while in 1859 it was enriched by the identification of working class interests with the Liberal party. This was a reflection of the national rather than the local community.
Religious issues, which in Preston meant the Catholic question, figured in 1853 (Trinity), in 1854, 1855 (St. John’s) and in 1859 (Trinity again), but the Catholics were now turning out as Conservatives rather than Liberals because of the so-called ‘Papal Aggression’ and the Liberal government’s Ecclesiastical Titles Bill (see chapter VI). Compared with secular concerns, however, religion appears to have been relatively unimportant in municipal politics.
Two matters of concern to this particular local community at this particular time were the power of ‘the cottonocracy’ and fear of the cost of providing at public expense those services without which life in a large town would have become intolerable: sewerage, and a universal water supply.
‘For some time past’, observed the Preston Guardian in 1853, ‘indeed previous to the commencement of the differences which at present unfortunately exist between the millowners and the workpeople – a feeling has been expressed that gentlemen connected with the cotton trade have secured more than their fair share of municipal honours… a determined spirit has been growing up to prevent a monopoly of millowners and manufacturers of the representation of the various wards, especially Fishwick and St. Peter’s’. (88)
Such a ‘feeling’ afflicted Edward Rodgett, who retired, and Charles Swainson, who was defeated, in Fishwick, in 1853, their places being taken by Thomas Dixon (provision dealer) and Robert Salts (druggist); the effects lasted into the following year when Henry Miller and John Swainson resigned their seats in Fishwick to be contested by a surveyor, an auctioneer, a builder, a grocer – and Edward Swainson, who was a worsted manufacturer. It caused the utter humiliation of John Hawkins at the poll in St. Peter’s in 1853 by 62 votes to 512 (but as there was no fourth candidate John Goodair came through unscathed); and in 1854 the defeat of the cotton spinner James Naylor (Southgate mill) by the pawnbroker Thomas Talbot.
The counter attack by cotton began in Fishwick in. 1856 when James Naylor and Joseph Isherwood (a druggist turned cotton manufacturer, one of two partners in Deepdale Mill in 1853) were ‘invited to be candidates’ (by a Swainson or a Birley?) ‘and their appearance in the field occasioned first Mr Salts, and then Mr Dixon to beat a retreat’; that is they resigned (89). The counter attack in St. Peter’s came in 1857, when Talbot retired and the Goodair influence secured the election of Richard Goodair and John Haslam (of Springfield and Parker Street mills respectively, and both Liberals) but this did not deter Thomas Dixon, and then Joseph Livesey himself, from opposing William Dawson (Aqueduct Street mill) in 1858, the burgesses being ‘dissatisfied on account of the representation of the ward being monopolised by a particular class’. Dawson, however, was supported by ‘various cotton manufacturers and spinners of the district’, and won by 573 to 306 (90). There were no contests in either St. Peter’s or Fishwick in 1859; and in 1860 both had six cotton men in the Council: between them, one quarter of the town’s municipal representation.
Although the consequences of the Public Health Act were foreseen by members of the Council in 1848, their work as the Local Board of Health (formed in 1850) did not begin to bite into the minds of the ratepayers until the decision to buy the Waterworks Company in 1853 .(see chapter VI), whereupon the word ‘Economy’ was promptly heard at municipal elections. In St. John’s ward parties opposed to the sitting member (Richard Threlfall jun.) requested James Parker, a grocer, to contest his place, telling him ‘they would return him at the head of the poll’. By the Guardian‘s account, ‘party feeling ran very high’, free cabs and unlimited drink were provided, and ‘plumpers’ were ‘quoted at a premium upon purity of exactly £1 a head’. This having achieved the desired result, Parker then promised he would do his best, ‘having in all things a strict eye for economy – (‘Good Lad’). Every man should be able to keep a pig if he would only keep it clean’ (91). Similar motives contributed to the rebellion against cotton in Fishwick ward: a meeting of the supporters of Dixon and Salts had discussed ‘Mr Wrigg’s salary and his pecuniary demands upon the Local Board’, it was in favour of a stipendiary magistrate and against ‘the cottonocracy’, and after his victory Dixon promised he would discharge his duties ‘fearlessly, independently and faithfully… by setting my face against all extravagant expenditure of your money’. Improvements necessary in a great commercial town could have his support, but ‘extravagant outlay’ his ‘determined opposition’ (92). The words ‘cheap’ and ‘economy’ were heard again in Fishwick in 1854 (where Miller and Swainson ‘declined to stand again’ (93)); and in 1857 St. John’s ward elected John Humber as ‘the poor man’s friend’ in the cause of ‘economy’ (94). In 1858 Richard Duckett, re-elected with George Smith in St. Peter’s without opposition, nevertheless promised spectators that he would vote ‘against any measure which he conceived would lead to the squandering of public money’ (95), while in St. George’s the clogger John Taylor (who had just defeated Willian Paley by 402 to 401 votes) declared that the burgesses ‘had been speaking out the sentiments of the ratepayers of Preston against the profligate extravagance of the Town Council’ (96). But (also in 1858) George Eastham (cotton spinner) was sufficiently confident of his position in Fishwick to declare boldly that he would not talk ‘claptrap about economy… he believed it the duty of the members of the Corporation to promote the health of the ‘ inhabitants’; and in Trinity Thomas Breakell (wine merchant) said he ‘would support every measure for the benefit of the town. As to economy – as to heavy taxes, it is necessary that they must exist’. Though it was hard for owners of cottage property to pay them, the Council did its best. Both were elected (97). The following year Thomas Dixon, though recommended by his friends as ‘an economist and an out and out Liberal’ was heavily defeated (98).
It was vital for the political life of the community that there were quick electoral responses to the rise in municipal spending, with keen contests over ‘economy”. From the point of view of my argument that there was a change in the nature of municipal politics in Preston in the 1850s from a primitive or proto-urban to a mature or fully urban character, it is immaterial which side was preponderant. Fraser (99) has shown how ‘improvement’ and ‘economy’ entered the arena of urban politics in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester (about a decade earlier than in Preston) but without explicitly linking these questions with the growth of the urban organism. Hennock, who likewise appears to assume a rather static concept of urban society in the 19th century, has shown the unfortunate effects of economist reactions in Birmingham and Leeds (100). While both have analysed the political and social composition of town councils, neither has considered the nature of the elections by which those councillors reached their seats in relation to the perennial but changing working society which elected them (101).
The reader will perhaps already have noticed that Fishwick, St. Peter’s and, to a lesser degree St. George’s, have been given more lines in the third act of Preston’s municipal drama, than the shopkeeping and aristocratic wards: the reason for this is that the contests in these wards received far more attention in the press. They were also, of course, the most industrialised and most rapidly growing wards, in population and, in the case of St. Peter’s, in burgesses; and may be regarded as the most characteristic of the industrial town, and perhaps also as the most advanced in social development, economically conceived.
The evidence in this respect seems to point in opposite directions, but the contradiction may exist rather in the mind of the historian than in reality. On one hand we have, first, the peculiarity of ‘the subordination of all other issues to the argument about the use of Moor Park for races’ (102).
This may have been a classic case of translating real economic divisions into other terms, because the Chronicle identified the anti-race party with those in favour of cheap trips (103) (and vice versa), but on the surface it was a dispute which might as well have occurred a century earlier. Second, electoral corruption continued, and got worse. The cases of treating, drunkenness and bribery are too numerous to record comprehensively, but they reduced the Preston Guardian to despair in 1856: the higher class of ratepayers led the lower class to be reckless and corrupt. The result was the election of the ‘confessedly unfit and the rejection of some of the best qualified’, and the surrender by the ratepayers of their privilege of selecting men for the Council ‘to cliques and electioneering agents’, and the determination of many ‘whose talents and activity would add to efficiency’ to remain outside the Council (104). ‘… in municipal circles it has long been said “The Bull bar, and not the council, rules the town” ‘ (105).
Candidates made ‘purity’ of electioneering a substantive issue of their campaigns in Fishwick in 1853, Christ Church in 1855, and Trinity and Fishwick in 1858. ‘The return of Mr Tait (in 1855) was achieved under circumstances of a novel character in the annals of electioneering. Not a penny was paid for a vote, nor a single glass of beer…’ observed the Chronicle (106); but this was Christ Church ward. It was different in Trinity in 1858, for example, where Dixon lost his campaign on the principle of purity. At 1 o’clock ‘groups of free and independent voters were lounging about, waiting to be bought… (and at 4 o’clock) a dense crowd had assembled around the principal polling booth, St Paul’s school, Pole Street…’ (107). Dixon actually boasted of the minority of votes he had received despite the prevailing corruptions. The Chronicle in 1856 was not surprised that ‘the poorer class of voters’ were corruptible: ‘can we expect the man, bowed down with poverty, to be a pattern of purity?’ (108) – this fault, however, derived mainly from the anomalous disfranchisement of the intermediate class of voters (rated between £5 and £10) which
consists generally of those who have successfully raised themselves in the scale of society, and have no fashionable patronage to seek after, fearing no pressure from those below them – as is sometimes resorted to in contests purely political – they generally act an independent part … The result of the legal eccentricity we have pointed out is this: the poorer the street, the larger the number – of voters; while those residing in the numerous newly-erected streets which include houses and small shops rated above £6 per year are actually disfranchised… (109).
This interpretation, if true, would perhaps demonstrate the sense in which Victorian development of urban society gave a new meaning to the medieval saying: ‘town air makes free’.
Unfortunately the new freedom was too easily abused: the voting paper, intended as an improvement, could be ‘fraudulently filled up’ because ‘many of the lower class of voters can neither read nor write’; and it gave rise to a system of personation:- ‘the dead, the sick, the absent, even those voters who cannot leave their work early in the day… are personated’ (110); while, in 1858,
The number of men who left their graves that morning… was astonishing… A pauper from Ribchester workhouse out for the day, saved several people the trouble of attending, by voting for them.
The explanation for the prevalence of this abuse was, significantly, that ‘it is almost impossible to find any two men who could speak positively to the identity of 200, 300, or 400 burgesses’ (111). On the other hand, the conduct of municipal elections has a new flavour altogether. Politically there was a much closer and more explicit connection between municipal and parliamentary elections. The political schemer and Liberal parliamentary agent Edward Ambler was active. In 1859 the Chronicle, observing that only one alderman (John Goodair), and 13 or 14 councillors, were Liberals, remarked on the hubbub raised at the suggestion that Mr Goodair might be mayor next year, and the Guardian reported Edward Ambler’s charge that Charles Birley was brought forward in Trinity ‘to thwart the election of J. Goodair as mayor’ (112). In Trinity ‘The last election tactics were repeated, and the same “holy alliance” that sought to return Cross and Clifton was cemented to secure the return of Birley and Carr’ (113). Speakers at a Trinity ward meeting showed that this political feeling went far beyond the petty local issue of the mayoralty. One wished the Council to petition for the reform of parliament: ‘the only way to promote that would be to get Liberal members into the Town Council’, while another recommended one of the Liberal candidates as ‘an esteemed tradesman, especially amongst the working classes‘ (114). Changes in social relationships are obvious also. In the celebratory discussions following the victory of Richard Goodair and John Haslam in St. Peter’s ward in 1857 (obtained by ‘a splendid working staff’ and ‘considerable personation on both sides’) John Goodair promised that if the burgesses
came forward in the same manner and on the same principles, as far as his humble means went they should never want ‘a cock’ (Loud laughter and cheers.). Living amongst them for the length of time he had done, meeting with them on those terms of familiarity which had always distinguished their acquaintance, and having lived amongst them when he was in a humbler sphere of life… he… felt grateful… for the high honour conferred on him and his family (Loud cheers). Up the town, people were accustomed to say, with a smile ‘What! St. Peter’s Ward!’ Now let them see what St. Peter’s Ward was… the most important ward in this borough… (Loud cries of ‘Capital’)’ (115).
John Goodair’s council partner George Smith was also prominent in the matey bandying of political repartee. Together they presented a Liberal version of Hornbyism which the Conservative rivals, also both cotton spinners in the ward, were quite unable to match; it was a sporting style of personal leadership mingled with a new social arrogance: Thomas Grime, active though not a candidate in 1857, accused Richard Goodair of ridiculing him in the words: ‘Do you think Tom Miller will sit beside Tom Grime?’ and replied ‘now I am as good as either young Dick or Owd Dick’ (116). In St. George’s in 1858, after a desperate struggle in which the clogger and Poor Law Guardian John Taylor (‘Radical Jack’) ‘visited personally every voter in the ward and secured the principal support of the Irish and of a large number of tradesmen who believe in Mr Taylor as an economist’, warm words were exchanged between Taylor and the losing candidate William Paley (cotton spinner). Paley addressed Taylor as ‘Thou’ and ‘Jack’, to which Taylor returned ‘Thou, Bill’, whereupon Paley struck him, saying ‘Don’t thee thou me’ (117). Sarcastic in the anger of defeat Paley thanked the burgesses for having
done me the honour to turn me out for St. George’s ward … the idea to turn out a respectable gentleman for that d—d cobbler! – (a storm of hisses and groans) – I think the people have lost their brains… you have rejected a gentleman for a d—d fool, that is all (118).
As Samuel Smith, Paley’s conservative partner and a long-sitting member for the ward, observed to the crowd of burgesses in the Corn Exchange, ‘I never saw the faces of many of you before’.