The modernisation of local administration
See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings
4. Deflection of purpose in the Town Council
The reformed Corporation, at first full of visions for the future, quickly mortgaged all its alternatives to an extraordinary speculation in the possibility that the river Ribble might do for Preston what the Clyde was doing for Glasgow and the Mersey for Liverpool. This, as I have shown elsewhere (76), was principally the work of Peter Haydock, attorney and chairman of the Ribble Navigation Company, and was achieved by fine tricks of salesmanship in the Council in December 1837 (77), less than a month after Haydock’s election as mayor. Glasgow’s expenditure on improvements in the Clyde, he said, yielded an average annual revenue of over £20,000, and ‘It only required a person to sail down the Clyde, in order to see that its natural advantages were not so great as those of the Ribble’. Backed, apparently, by the authority of a nautical survey by the Edinburgh engineer Robert Stevenson, which the councillors lacked the ‘technical expertise to interpret in its strictly technical sense – especially with respect to the rise and fall of the tide and a bed of sandstone rock which crossed the river within a mile of the quays (78) – Haydock had no difficulty in persuading the councillors to increase their investment from 50 to a total of 214 of 1,000 £50 shares in the Ribble Navigation Company. Indeed Isaac Wilcockson begged the Council to revoke the original agreement with-the company and ‘to make the Corporation the sole proprietor of the undertaking… subscribers to the rest of the shares would surely give them up in order to benefit the town at large…’ (79). Unfortunately for Preston, Wilcockson was wrong on both counts.
Firstly, twenty six members of the Council at this time, including himself, had already taken 126 shares in the Ribble Company. Analysis of the full list of subscribers (80) shows that _ they were unrepresentative of the town as a whole. Very few cotton spinners or manufacturers had taken any shares in the Ribble (though most of them had invested in the Preston and Wigan railway in 1833 (81)); and only a small minority of Improvement Commissioners who were not also councillors. Lawyers, bankers, end tradesmen whose occupations suggest connections with coastal or Irish shipping (e.g. merchants, corn dealers and flax spinners) were the largest private venturers.
Secondly, the shallow brown water of the Ribble estuary led to no municipal El Dorado. Calls of £10 per share presented the Corporation with bills of £2,140, which was more than half its ordinary revenue, and as the leading opponent of the speculation, Peter Catterall, said in 1839, objecting to such a payment ‘Any private individual in such a situation would at once call a meeting of his creditors’ (82). In November 1840 the wretched Treasurer, Philip Park, was obliged to report to the Council that he had presented a cheque for £2,140 ‘which the bankers had thought fit not to honour, stating that they did not wish the Corporation to stand indebted to them in a greater sum than £5000’ (83).
From this inauspicious start the Corporation continued by the unwise but humanly and historically understandable policy of sending good money after bad, in the hope of finally recovering what was lost, so that by 1855 they had paid £20,292 in calls on 872 ordinary and preference shares, and a further £14,461 on quays, sheds, cranes, and linking railway, making a total of £34,753 (84). In return they had received four dividends amounting to £712 and an improved rental on the marsh property. Throughout the 1840s Haydock fought hard, not to say unscrupulously and illegally, for the development of the Ribble and of the Corporation’s port facilities, and as a measure of his faith, when no merchants came forward, invested his own money in the erection of the bonded Victoria warehouses in 1844 without which – Preston would not have obtained the status of an independent port, but remained a ‘creek’ under Fleetwood (85).
But his fellow councillors’ faith in his leadership of the enterprise wore out. His ultimate humiliation, just a month before his death, was a council debate in 1850 on his suggestion that the Corporation should take exclusive control. For the first time, and totally out of character, he admitted that he was ‘very sorry that the returns on the investment promised in the prospectus had not been realised’; quite contrary to the proud tone of his lengthy history at the time of the opening of the warehouses, as well as a denial of the facts of 1837, he declared that the decision of the Council to take ‘150 shares more than the original 50’ was ‘a mistake which he had always regretted’, But John Goodair, George Smith, Robert Lawe – a shareholder who now ‘thought it unfortunate that the Corporation were connected with the river at all’, Robert Ascroft, ‘believing that in a short time the Navigation Company would be wound up’, and above all, John Livesey, analysing in detail the true cost of the Ribble Navigation Company investment, now showed no mercy. Livesey ‘thought that Mr Haydock was really trespassing upon the forgiveness and indulgence of the Corporation…’ (86).
Even if Haydock was using the Corporation to serve the interests of the Ribble Navigation Company, which is at least debatable, the Council which unanimously approved the decision to take 214 shares must have believed that the river would truly benefit the town at large. If the scheme had been profitable on the scale suggested to them, it would have paid for many other improvements and services in the town which were variously cherished by members of the Corporation. Therefore it is not surprising to find that the scheme was supported by Conservatives, Liberals and Radicals, and by Catholics and Protestants, in proportion to their might in the town; or that Haydock and his followers dominated the Committee structure in the early years of the reformed Council.
Eight of the eleven members of the General Purposes Committee in 1836-37 had invested in the R.N.C. by October 1837. The sixteen members of the Committee formed in November 1837 included eleven R:N.C. subscribers, with 71 shares between them (87). As these eleven included three of the remaining Radicals, a Catholic Liberal (the corn merchant George Gradwell), and the proprietor of the Liberal Chronicle, as well as Tories, it cannot be said that the committee was composed politically. Its nature was determined by Haydock and the Ribble. Although the merging of the Markets Committee with the General Purposes Committee on Haydock’s motion at this meeting caused John Noble to demur to ‘the mode of appointing committees’ and ‘the unequal distribution of membership’ between members and wards it is clear that Haydock continued to manage their composition, for two years later Thomas German ‘could bear witness that Mr Haydock had always endeavoured to select the committees without reference to any parties’ (88). Haydock not only organised the committees, he led them. From January 1836 to November 1842 he attended 114 out of 133 meetings of the General Purposes Committee, taking the chair at 89 of them because, apart from Thomas German in 1837-8, the other mayors hardly ever attended. The pattern was similar in the Watch Committee (89).
Although in one important respect Haydock failed to impose his will, the nominations for appointment of Borough Magistrates, it made little difference to the composition of the bench. Professing the principle that ‘all classes should be represented’, by which he meant interests rather than classes, he proposed a politically mixed list of twelve in which cotton, law, ad banking were approximately equal. There were objections to the inclusion of lawyers from Joseph Livesey, who suggested the substitution of ‘shopkeepers, factors and the like’ who were ‘equally eligible in point of respectability’, and from Mitchell, whose support for Livesey’s suggestion was revealing: ‘… they would be mediators between the higher masters and the working people’. Charles Swainson, a calico printer, added his objection to the appointment of persons concerned with ‘large trading establishments’ because ‘they did not receive the confidence of the public generally’. (90) A list of 12 drawn up by John Swainson, differing by only 3 names from Haydock’s and excluding lawyers on principle, was finally agreed the next week, and the Home Secretary appointed the first ten on this list. Five of them were active or retired manufacturers (91), and by 1851 this number had risen to seven. In 1836 six and in 1851 nine of the magistrates were members of the Corporation. The political balance was likewise destroyed by 1842: ‘every vacancy has been filled up by a conservative, and the whole body are now of that class’ (92). The conservative and cotton domination of the bench laid up problems for the future, especially in the strike and lock-out of 1853-4 when the distinction between justice and employer was hard to see.
There may be little general historical significance in Preston’s early and enduring municipal infidelity with a river whose potential for economic fertility was always marginal (and usually the wrong side of that margin), but in several respects the Corporation’s speculation can be seen as typical of the first phase of its activity. The decision was taken by amateurs without either adequate professional advice or responsible reconsideration, a lesson specifically quoted by a member of the Local Board in 1856 when waterworks construction was suspended for reassessment (see below). It served a sectional interest in the town, rather than the whole community, a distinction which was only recognised in the second and applied in the third phase. More remarkably, in taking the decision and paying for it the members thought and behaved as a private corporation rather than as a public body responsible to ratepayers at large. ‘Since… 1836 the Corporation have alienated various portions of the Corporate Estates to the amount of £21,885… (and) taken shares in the Ribble Navigation Company and paid calls thereon amounting to £20,292’ the Treasurer ‘remarked’ in 1855 (93). The minute books and press reports of Council meetings clearly show the tortuous process of obtaining Treasury permission (reluctantly granted) executing the sale or mortgage of land, mostly the former common lands of the freemen on the Marsh and the Moor, and of raising money by loans from private individuals (94). Watch rates, levied first in 1839, were so obviously an expedient related to the Corporation’s speculation that they were not only hotly contested in the council (95), but their very legality was disputed by the Overseers of the Poor for this very reason, the lawyer Peter Catterall leading the opposition in both cases (96).
In this phase the Corporation showed no genuine interest in any kind of collective responsibility. Only the mandatory duty to maintain a borough constabulary force could be described as such, and Preston maintained as few as possible. With an initial establishment of one Superintendent and ten constables in 1836, the ratio of police to population was about 1:3727 (97); a grudging addition of six in August 1839, the Superintendent having asked for ten after a riot of Irish railway navvies in July (98), improved the ratio to 1:2959, but this was still far worse than the average shown in Mather’s tables (99), or for most of the police forces in Lancashire (100). A bill of 1840 to amend the County Constabulary Act, containing a clause which would compel boroughs to maintain the same proportion of constables to population as the counties was fiercely attacked in the Council by Peter Haydock because ‘the police force of this town would have to be doubled… (it) seemed to him to be a direct attack upon local government… Our present police was perfectly effective.’ (101)
The Watch Committee minutes and the press reports of crimes and riots do not support this belief, or the impression that the population was ‘orderly and quiet not disorderly and easily excited’ (102). While Superintendent Banister may have been afraid of Chartists when he reported to the Watch Committee that ‘he considers the Police Force not sufficient to keep the peace in case of an outbreak‘ (103) (even for the legitimate political process of a parliamentary election in 1837 the committee had authorised the employment of 120 special constables and ’30 strong and able men’ (104)) but councillors Blackhurst and James Park in the debate on increasing the constables from 10 to 16 were not afraid. Blackhurst: ‘the public need not be afraid of the persons calling themselves Chartists. The fact was such fellows as O’Connor ought to have been hanged long ago…’ and Park: ‘where there was one chartist, – one of those persons prepared to injure persons and property, there were twenty of the working classes who would stand forward in defence of both'(105). At the same meeting Peter Catterall revived a suggestion which had been raised in the Watch Committee two years earlier, discussed with some of the magistrates and rejected (106): ‘the establishment of a barracks… was the best means of permanently securing the peace of the town’. Though indignantly rejected again by the Council, this course was pursued by other parties, probably including Thomas Miller who had supported it in 1837. The Board of Ordnance’s decision to build barracks was reported in November 1841 (107), a company of rifles took temporary quarters in Barker’s old mill off Church Street in September 1842, and the building of Fulwood Barracks began in August 1843 and was completed in June 1848 (108). For the accommodation of a protective battalion of infantry, a squadron of cavalry and a demi-battery of artillery costing £137,921 the Corporation of Preston had to pay nothing. The Borough Police force meanwhile grew roughly in pace with the population of the town: 18 police to 51,000 in 1841, 19 to 58,000 in 1845, and 26 to 64,000 in 1848: a slightly worse ratio than in 1839.
The rest of the Corporation’s early efforts on behalf of the town as a whole were more limited than Robert Segar had hoped in 1835 (see Chapter 4.1). There was a curious faith in the social influence of buildings and parks, especially in the minds of the Reformers before they were ousted.
The most ambitious was the covered Market, which made the first of its ghostly appearances as a committee’s resolution to obtain ground plans of the property in the Market Place and of the new Market at Newcastle on Tyne, in November 1837 (109), and then vanished. It was conjured into life again early in 1841 in much more substantial form, by Isaac Wilcockson and Lord Derby’s agent E. Birket; and in September the Council, viewing grandiose plans for a quadrangle of buildings to replace the whole area of the existing market place and Shambles (110) – ‘one of the finest things that could be done for the town’ – , and calculating the risk of incurring a market rate for a scheme costing up to £40,000, failed by one vote to approve it: ‘it would involve the funds of the corporation almost inextricably’ (111).
In May 1836 Robert Sagar proposed the appointment of a Committee of Health and Recreation, suggesting as proper subjects for its attention the establishment of public baths, the encouragement of ‘the English sports of our fore fathers’, and a Botanic Garden – stocked with ‘hardy British plants and flowers’; Joseph Livesey had in mind ‘a playground for the young people of the town, amongst whom he numbered about a thousand juvenile teetotallers’; and Joseph Mitchell was provoked by such trivialities to suggest the establishment of ward schools for the poor, ‘the present schools being of advantage only to the rich’ (112). A Committee of Health and Recreation was appointed in June (113), and Mitchell’s motion for ward schools (in effect secular ‘Board Schools’) was seriously and lengthily debated and lost by a surprisingly close margin in July (114). But the drift of policy was already apparent in June, when Peter Haydock moved a memorial to the Treasury for permission to sell the whole of the Corporation property, John Noble objected that as the town and the wants of the inhabitants were increasing rapidly the immediate advantage of such sales of land especially of the Moor ‘was at the expense of disregarding posterity’; and R.W. Hopkins suggested the purchase of land for the extension of Avenham Walks to the riverside. Mitchell’s observation on the Council’s notion of social priorities was accurate: ‘They had appointed a committee of health, whose exertions were mainly in behalf of the higher classes. Even the Baths … would be principally for them; and he did not see any immediate benefit to the working classes from a survey of the river’ (115).
Two years later the baths were apparently forgotten, and the Council voted to extend Avenham Walks (116). The continuation of this particular story needs no additional comment. In August 1844 the mayor, John Addison, recommended that the Corporation should purchase land in front of Avenham Walk for £1,500. (The accounts for the year ending on 31 August 1844 show that expenditure of £9,189 exceeded income by £4,332, or 47% (117).) The Treasurer, Philip Park, had prepared a plan ‘as there had been a parliamentary grant… towards the establishment of public walks and gardens in populous towns, and he thought some portion of it could be got for Preston’. Addison, referring to some examples of such gardens he had seen in France and Germany, and to the brutish reputation of the lower orders in England, which he trusted was no longer true, ‘hoped that the efforts made to educate the people… had instructed at least the younger portion of the lower orders to curb their taste for destruction’, and with the support of alderman George Jacson who ‘had enjoyed the advantages of residence in the neighbourhood of Avenham Walks’ and reminded the Council that ‘the particular classes whose advantage was chiefly contemplated (were) those who have little leisure except during certain hours of the day… this made it necessary to provide for them near their homes’; the motion passed unanimously and in November the land was mortgaged to Pedder’s bank. (118)
One year later Jacson asked the Council to vote a grant of £250 towards the funds subscribed for erecting a new building for the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge on a site fronting Avenham Walks. John Addison reminded the Council that the Corporation had purchased land at Avenham ‘to benefit the inhabitants’ and pointed out that by assisting the new building for the Institution in the same vicinity ‘their land would be rendered still more valuable’. Passed unanimously (119). Twenty eight of the 48 members of the at this time lived in Christ Church ward, sixteen of them in ‘the same vicinity’ as the proposed site (120). Press comments are – equally interesting. The Chronicle (proprietor Isaac Wilcockson, residence in Ribblesdale Place, adjoining the site) said firmly: ‘there cannot be a reasonable doubt as to its propriety, or as to its being in perfect accordance with the legitimate objects of Corporate Institutions – the promotion of the social welfare of the entire municipal constituency’ (121).
The Guardian (proprietor Joseph Livesey, a founder member of the Institution in Cannon Street) thought that
If the building be intended as an ornament to a part of the town that needs it the least… nobody ought to complain, except, perhaps, those members who are attached to Cannon Street… (but) a more unlikely site could scarcely have been chosen. It is quite at an outside corner of the town, and convenient only to the comparatively wealthy. And not only so, but it will become less and less central as the town extends… (122).
Such was the fate of early municipal idealism.