Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: chapter 5.2

The modernisation of local administration

See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings

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2. Improvement Commissioners

If a consequence of ‘the Frenchified system of centralisation’ was a negative policy in poor law management, the positive potential of the freedom of the Improvement Commissioners and of the Corporation was a privilege fiercely defended:

Your petitioners… decidedly object… to some of the extraordinary powers given to a central Government Board… your petitioners are of opinion that the proposed measure would be best carried out by one locally elected Body in each Town… who should manage their own affairs unfettered and uncontrolled by a Government Board or their officers… (58).

– thus the tone of the Commissioners’ response to Lord Morpeth’s first Health of Towns Bill in 1847. Nine years later the Council regarded the County and Borough Police Bill: ”…as an unconstitutional interference with the privileges of Boroughs, and subversive of the independence and right of self-government secured to them by the Municipal Reform Act…’ (59) and one councillor at the meeting which despatched this message pointed out the

very objectionable nature of the 5th and 6th clauses… which, in his opinion were almost calculated to extinguish town councils altogether. He contended that as they taxed themselves, and raised money for public purposes, they ought to have the distribution of it.

The privileges and responsibilities of the Improvement Commissioners and the Corporation were exercised by a relatively small number of men. Ninety eight meetings of the Commissioners between 1838 and 1845 were attended by a total of 180 individuals; sixty seven from 1845 to 1850 by 153. But only a small minority attended meetings at all regularly. The numbers present fluctuated between the extremes of 8 in August 1841 and November 1850 and 71 in May 1850; and although there seems to have been some regularity within the ordinary range of attendances (between 15 and 30) up to about 1845, the numbers varied increasingly erratically. There were 38 in December 1838, only 12 the next month. 1846 began with meetings of 20 in January, 12 in February and 45 in March. Even if the same leading group could be relied upon to be present at most meetings, a sudden influx of relative strangers, all entitled to vote, would have made continuity _ of business very difficult (60).

In fact only as many as seventeen Commissioners attended half the meetings from 1838 to 1845, and the same number between 1845 and 1850. These included some who were Guardians of the Poor, such as the joiner Ralph Dickson, the surveyor Andrew Halliday and the pawn-. broker Isaac Gate, and some who were councillors; but only a handful of men who either then or later played a leading role in Council affairs: Peter Haydock, attorney and manipulative manager of the early years of the Council; Thomas Monk, surgeon, probably the most assiduous attender of council meetings from 1836 until his imprisonment in 1857 (61); and four of the most active Liberal leaders, Robert Parker and the ubiquitous Robert Ascroft, both attorneys, and John Hawkins and George Smith, both cotton spinners of St. Peter’s Ward.

Some of the most active, long serving, and influential members of the Council, however, played little part among the Improvement Commissioners. J.J. Myres, partner in one of the two rival firms of Surveyors, who had much to do with the physical development of the town, did not appear at all, although his professional competitor and Corporation Steward, Philip Park, was a frequent member. John Goodair was another total absentee. No Birley appeared, a Swainson only twice.

The General Purposes Committee of the Improvement Commissioners was constituted mainly of middling men – grocers, leather cutters, pawnbroker, surveyor etc. – who were also Guardians of the Poor, plus two or three energetic councillors such as Robert Parker and George Smith, but the committees formed in 1845-47 to consider the gas and the water questions and the Health of Towns Bill were very different: on these appeared Peter Catterall, James German, Robert Ascroft, all lawyers in the front rank of council leadership; John Paley jun., Thomas and Henry Miller, and Paul Catterall, councillors who owned some of the largest mills in the town; Isaac Wilcockson and Joseph Livesey, proprietors respectively of the Chronicle and the Guardian; and the four men most directly responsible for the Corporation’s engagement with the Ribble Navigation Company: Peter Haydock, chairman of the Company, and R.W. Hopkins, George Corry and Thomas Leach.

When it was clear that parliamentary legislation would transfer the responsibilities of the Improvement Commissioners to the Corporation, these heavyweight members withdrew, leaving more humble Commissioners to continue their vital but inadequate labours unaided,

Therefore, despite the open character of the Improvement Commission, and the fairly high but erratic attendance at its monthly meetings, only a score or so of middling sort of men took the trouble to use their independence from central government interference; and when the business was judged to be really important it was taken out of their hands by a small number of leading councillors.

58. Commissioners MB 1845-50, 26 April 1847.
59. PG 16 Feb 1856.
60. Commissioners MBs 1838-45 and 1845-50 passim.
61. for forging a will: Hewitson (1883) p.556.

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