The modernisation of local administration
3. Phases of change: the first phase in the Town Council and Improvement Commission.
The greatest organisational development took place in the affairs of the Corporation. Because the functions of this body were not at first defined beyond responsibility for certain traditional charities, for the Grammar School and for the policing of the town, the purposes and form of its organisation depended upon the perceptions, interests, or vision of its leadership while its endowment with the authority of Local Board of Health presented its members with questions of means rather than ends which were even more challenging.
Although 1850 brought a constitutional transformation, it made little immediate difference either to the active leadership or to their perception of their responsibilities. In Council and Local Board affairs the period from the late 1830s to the late 1850s was to a great extent literally a single generation. More than a handful of men served throughout the period, some of them in changed roles but with undiminished influence, and all of them in the front rank of leadership.
Robert Ascroft, for example, Liberal politician, Vestryman and Guardian, Improvement Commissioner and councillor, eventually became Torn Clerk. Philip Park, Commissioner, Corporation Steward and Local Board Treasurer, was also appointed Engineer to the Waterworks. Joseph Livesey, promoter of self-help par excellence, Commissioner, Vestryman, Guardian, for a short while a councillor, founded and owned the best of Preston’s newspapers, the Preston Guardian, and this role was continued by his son John. Thomas German, a stalwart of the early years of the Council, was followed by his nephew James German, and Thomas Miller senior by his son Thomas, Peter Catterall attorney was a leading councillor from 1838 until the late 1860s. John James Myres, Robert Parker, Thomas Monk, John Goodair, and George Smith likewise served in the vanguard through most of the period.
Nevertheless it is possible to distinguish different phases within the period. Up to about 1844 the concept of leadership remained essentially amateur and voluntary. Despite the huge and rapid growth of population, leaders showed little sign of perceiving the need for collectivist responses to problems which they could surely see and smell, The first phase of council activities included battles for priority between various schemes ostensibly for the benefit of the town, none of which related to its fundamentally collective needs. The second phase, from about 1844 to 1853, combines increasingly realistic perception of the needs of the town with lack of adequate means. In the third phase the Council which had acquired the means and begun the work appropriate to a large industrial town, was exercised mainly with problems of retrospectively planning and organising what it had already begun. Only in the last of these three phases did Preston’s social and political leadership accept the collectivist necessities of an urban society.
The prevailing attitudes of the early 1830s can be seen in the building of the House of Recovery and the response to the cholera scare of 1832, and in an argument among the Improvement Commissioners which took place in 1834.
Although the General Vestry of 1828 gave unanimous approval to a plan for building a new House of Recovery, justified as a means of isolating cases of infectious fever for the benefit of the rest of society (62), an enlarged design which would still accommodate no more than 286 patients provoked an immediate opposition which was overridden only by the reality of typhus fever – ‘there are 15 patients in the House of Recovery and other cases pressing for admission, but every bed is occupied’ (63); and by the fear of cholera (64). Cholera prompted the formation of temporary ‘Boards of Health’ in the autumn of 1831 and summer of 1832 (65), consisting of committees of laymen, clergy and doctors who visited the various districts of the town, and reported back with recommendations. According to the Pilot, they found ‘that, in general, our back streets are in a somewhat neglected state’ (66). This was a complacent dismissal of the report as printed in Livesey’s Moral Reformer, which, to summarise it briefly, described floods of shit from leaking bog holes, heaps of ashes mixed with decomposing organic matter, and ‘human impurities strewn about the back streets’. For these conditions the remedies recommended were the establishment of large manure depots on the outskirts of the town, and the introduction of enclosed watertight iron carts to enable the filth to be transported to them during the daytime without offence. Almost in a tone of relief this report recognised a limitation of the responsibility of public authorities. Some of the nuisances reported, ‘can only be removed by individual exertion on account of their existing on private property, and being beyond the surveillance of the police they can only interfere by indictment at the quarter sessions’ (67). The Radical Addresses offered ironic prescriptions to cure the cholera morbus: a good beef dinner and the distribution among the poor of ‘the golden ointment applied daily to the medical gentlemen’; (68) a fundamental analysis of the problem perhaps (and one which was repeated by the Chronicle in 1843) but totally lacking appreciation of its collective aspect.
The vision of the Improvement Commission was equally limited. In 1834 Isaac Wilcockson responded to a motion of Thomas Miller senior for widening the footpath in Lune Street by remarking that the Commissioners paid too much attention to the centre streets and too little to the back streets. Peter Catterall ‘resented the stigma on himself and on all the Commissioners… was it not a stigma to move that this should be postponed on the assumption that the Commissioners would not repair the back streets as well as the front streets’. Wilcockson’s amendment was lost 5:8 (69).
For the most part the concerns of the Commissioners and of the Council did not rise above this level for another ten years. The Commissioners occupied themselves with matters such as the condition of gratings over cellar lights, the flagging of the streets, with the formation of thoroughfares (expecting, for example, Ribbleton Lane to be degraded from a road to a street by the building of the Longridge railway (70)), and creating Orchard Street (71). In 1837 they had a deficit large enough to suggest the suspension of all works (72) and the next year Wilcockson introduced a motion to consider applying for an act to amend the Preston Police Act ‘especially with a view to obtain powers and provisions for an effective sewerage of the town’. Thomas Clarke, for long their mainstay and chairman ‘preferred the old paths to the new, and thought the act gave them sufficient powers’; even Wilcockson’s supporters doubted whether this was the time for the expense of a new act (73).
But there were signs of attempts to use such statutory authority as they did possess to restrict private liberty for the public benefit; straws of town planning in a light breeze of change, beyond the piecemeal orders to owners of property to pave and flag streets, or pay their proportion of the expenses of sewering (74): in particular the publication of specifications to be observed in the making of new streets, agreed in April 1841 and the regulations of October 1842 as to shop fronts, which laid down general specifications and procedures for what would now be called ‘planning applications’ (75).