The modernisation of local administration
See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings
6. The Third Phase: problems of modernisation.
Committed to the two great labours of providing that watery infrastructure without which no town could be called modern (‘… it has to be built primarily upon water’ (213)), the town’s elected leaders now confronted three basic realities of their new role: dependence upon revenue from ratepayers, definition of the role of their principal officers, and the technicalities of their new works.
There was a periphery of optional enterprise such as the building of a new market, new police station and new Town Hall. As these were not intrinsically significant to the thesis all that need be said here is as follows. The police station, when proposed as a combined scheme with the county magistrates, was bitterly attacked in the Council as a plot to transfer the authority of the watch committee into the hands ‘of about six county magistrates’ (214). The Lancaster Road police station and magistrates courts were erected in 1857. The ghost of a covered market walked for the fourth time (215), to be exorcised during the Great Strike by the ratepayers, and the Town Hall suffered the same fate after a ‘Building Committee’ had spent nearly two years expensively demolishing old buildings and commissioning architects’ plans (216). The specifications for the Town Hall show that at last they were trying to provide enough rooms for their officers as well as themselves (217).
It is probably theoretically possible that from a calculation of the relationship between the environmental demands of growing Victorian towns and their economic capacity to generate rateable value some constant might be derived against which to judge the performance of local leadership. Gross differences in the level of perception and response between different towns would become more intelligible (218). The needs of Preston were as great as those of much larger towns but with a modest rateable value its progressive leadership was confined within narrow limits of ratepayer toleration. The baths and wash houses were built, but attacked in the Council as unprofitable. (219) The sewerage and waterworks schemes were approved but not the market and Town Hall.
The necessary expense of the Local Board of Health was at first resisted. A General Purposes Committee recommendation of a general district rate of 18d in the pound was reduced to 14d at the Board’s meeting of March 1851, John Livesey ‘remarking that he thought caution was necessary… when they considered that they were leaping from a rate of 10d…’ (220) A leap to 20d was tolerated the next year, and rates remained at this level until the sewerage works called for a Special District Rate of 2d in 1854, when the general rate was reduced in proportion. The total of 20d was maintained until 1857 by the same means, but in 1856 there was a huge deficit on the water account (221). The table of such figures as I have found (below) shows that rateable value remained fairly constant during the 1850s (222).
Vocal expressions of ratepayers’ resistance, beginning with the opposition to increasing the Surveyor’s salary in 1851 (see above) started to impinge on the municipal elections in 1852 (see Chapter 4) rising rapidly to the level of ratepayer organisation during the Great Strike of 1853-4. A public meeting of a ‘Preston Ratepayers Association’ in the Corn Exchange on 8th March 1854 was ‘crowded to excess, and numbers anxious to be present were unable to gain admission’ (223), and three weeks later another meeting of ‘the trading and middle classes generally’ including ‘many respectable shopkeepers’ and a ‘considerable number of factory operatives. (see Chapter 3) The leading speaker at both was Edward Ambler, a letter press printer and later Liberal political agent (224). The first of these meetings covered a wide range of public business: rates, new Town Hall, Burial Board and cemetery; Wrigg’s salary; the magistracy; the watch committee and police; the Town Clerk; the Board of Guardians; corruption at municipal elections; and the quality of the Corporation’s leadership. Ambler
classed the members… in three sections: one portion were good speakers and workers; another were no speakers and did a little work; the third portion could do neither… but were the mere tools of others… (But) he bore testimony to the energetic and valuable services of Mr Spencer, Mr Goodair and Mr Robert Parker, who, he said, had lost all prospect of promotion in the council by pursuing an independent, honourable, and straight forward course.
Contemporaries out of doors, therefore, were aware of the town’s dependence on a small minority leadership among the élite. Even in the desperate circumstances of the Strike the emphasis was on effective not merely cheap local government. Equally clear is the evidence of close attention by the burgesses to the public business then in the hands of their elected representatives. By 1858 candidates for election could afford to be quite firm with the voters on the duty of the Corporation ‘to promote the health of the inhabitants’ and the necessity for heavy taxes; while one of those who had spoken at the ratepayers’ meeting in 1854, though recommended as ‘an economist’ was heavily defeated (see Chapter 4).
The problem of defining the role and stations of senior officers of the local authority, which Wrigg’s case illustrated, was not confined to the Surveyor. Definition came slowly, and with marked inconsistency between one officer and another. The predicament of officers appointed to fulfil new functions in that period was not enviable.
Between them Henry Wrigg and the first Superintendent of Police, Samuel Banister, not only had charge of much of the physical and social environment of the town including supervision of the fire brigade, but they had to create the system while doing the job. Banister (225), permanently handicapped by a shortage of constables, also had to suffer the diversion of some of his force to patrolling the quays; inspecting factory chimneys, searching out ‘nuisances’ and inspecting lodging houses. The chronic shortage of police (mentioned above p.250) was quite obvious to Thomas Miller in 1855: ‘the police force of Preston was totally inadequate both for the protection of the town and for the safety of the inhabitants’ (226). The establishment was also unstable and of poor quality.
note: For explanation of marginal references in bold, see below.
The constables, paid between 17/- and 19/- (with sergeants up to 23/-) (1) had to be allocated mainly to night shifts; they were inclined to get drunk, loiter in pubs or commit riotous and disorderly behaviour; (2) they were frequently injured in the course of their duties; and not until January 1852 were they forbidden either ‘directly or indirectly to keep any shop or follow any trade or calling’ (3) and instructed to give the whole of their time and attention to their duty. By 1848 Banister was in command of a force of 26, and was paid the relatively good salary of £300, but his status was low, for in that year he was: ‘informed that he is not to leave the Town except on Police Business without leave from the mayor or magistrates’. (4) A Constabulary Committee formed in 1851 had an uncertain notion of the Superintendent’s duties: ‘It is expected that he will acquire a perfect knowledge of the Town and its inhabitants generally’ and ensure that his officers ‘rendered themselves conspicuous by a zealous and efficient discharge of their duties’. (5) Finding that Banister was guided by Liverpool rules, the committee, in what was to become a common pattern, wrote to 28 other towns for information on the duties of Superintendents, and asked Banister to (6) submit a written statement of his own duties. They then immediately declared that his duties were ‘not efficiently performed’, and by a detailed scrutiny of his account books discovered an error of five shillings and demanded a written explanation. In reply Banister (7) listed the sums of money which had passed through his hands totalling £1153-8-3d; and ‘… although I may not have made the amount of pretension which would have suited many persons I trust that I have added to the beneficial working of the police force…’ (8) Relations between the Council and the police force deteriorated rapidly under the mayoralties of Thomas Monk and Peter Catterall in 1852 and 1853, and Banister finally resigned with a pension of £104 in February 1853 ‘being worn out by length of service in the police force’. (9) The response to the advertisements for his successor at a reduced salary of £200 shows the transitional nature of the office at this period. The 89 applicants included many army officers and NCOs, a (10) schoolmaster, an innkeeper, a bookseller, the governor of a workhouse and an East India Company merchant. The Watch Committee short listed two army captains with four policemen and the Council appointed the Superintendent of Plymouth, Joseph Gibbons aged 36, who immediately asked for an increase in the force. (11)
While one would expect that the Town Clerk and the Treasurer should be on a different footing, it is surprising to find that neither was yet required to abandon his private practice. Although after Robert Ascroft was appointed Town Clerk and Clerk to the Local Board in Palmer’s place in December 1852 a committee investigating his duties and salary recommended that he ‘should devote the whole of his time to the service of the Corporation’ and that he should be paid a fixed salary of £400 instead of being allowed to make professional charges, the Council could not be persuaded that there was a practical means of paying a salary commensurate with what he earned by combining public service with private practice. Ascroft himself said that while he would take the increased salary ‘£400 is quite inadequate for the duties to be performed’. Peter Catterall, on behalf of the committee of four lawyers and one millowner (Goodair) said that ‘Four out of five of the committee were of opinion that a clear salary of £800 would be a proper sum to pay the town clerk to engage the whole of his services’ (227). The ‘impression’ of Francis Armstrong (also a lawyer) that ‘in the course of a year or two the duties of the office would not be so heavy as to require Mr. Ascroft’s full attention’, shows how slowly perception of the changing demands of local government was dawning; and in 1857 Ascroft found ‘that in consequence of the duties having greatly increased… considerably more of my time is now, and long has been, occupied than ever anticipated; indeed almost the whole of my time is now taken up’. Out of the fixed salaries of £200 for each of his offices ‘I have to provide office room, and pay the wages of clerks to assist me’ (228). The Council agreed to pay him £600 but still did not feel justified in demanding that he should work exclusively for the Corporation (229). If Ascroft was in fact becoming a full time officer, then the Council were avoiding the embarrassment of reducing one of themselves to the status of servant. They were afflicted with a similar delicacy concerning their Steward and Treasurer, Philip Park, in 1860. A committee formed to consider the payments to be made in future to him for salary as Treasurer to the Corporation ‘and to Messrs Park, Son, and Garlick for professional services’ discovered that since 1846 the Corporation had paid £1590 for his professional services on top of his annual salary of £100 (230). The Council decided to continue paying for the professional services ‘as heretofore’, and raised his salary to £175, ‘with £25 each year for Office Rent, so long as the Corporation business is transacted and the books kept at his office’. Park, Son and Garlick had been appointed Engineers to the Waterworks in place of Henry Wrigg in May 1857 (231).
The removal of Wrigg from his two posts resulted from the closer attention paid by elected members to the works in his charge and their cost, but its consequence was an overdue examination of the total organisation of the Local Board. A Manchester accountant called in by the Finance Committee found the Board’s accounts in an
abominable state and condition… your business split . into ridiculous departments, no one officer knowing enough of any branch of your concern to enable him to give … a coherent… statement of its condition or position… it is absolutely necessary that the particular responsibility of each (of your officers) should be fixed and defined… (232)
Another committee, to help the new Surveyor in the arrangement of his office, found that he was responsible for a full time establishment of 121 men, plus 33 part time firemen, which the committee organised in seven departments (233). The members of the Board agreed to their recommendations despite several objections that their Accountant’s salary of £150 was too large: ‘the majority were of opinion that the remuneration was not too much for a clever man… who was… expected to rescue the board from the position… of possessing no reliable accounts at all’ (234). In the early stages of modern local government in Preston, functional growth outstripped understanding and organisation, and sharp differences of perceived status between gentlemen, officers and servants obstructed adaptation to the demands of the time.
Having overburdened and underpaid their Surveyor, too hastily appointed him Engineer to the waterworks without ensuring that his status was clear or that his department was properly organised, the Local Board discovered early in 1856 that all was not well with their works. The dissatisfaction focussed first on his status and behaviour as an officer, which was at least intelligible to the members of the Board, but soon shifted to aspects of civil engineering which made new demands on their understanding. A long and devastating analysis of Henry Wrigg’s past behaviour was led by Peter Catterall in January 1856, building a case to suggest that Wrigg had exploited both the Board and his subordinate staff at every opportunity since his appointment as Engineer (235). Dragging on through most of the year, this also revealed that Wrigg’s ability to keep written records of his work was limited.
After this, the Board began learning rapidly. In February 1856 Edmund Birley (cotton spinner of Swainson, Birley & Co.) moved for the appointment of a committee to inquire into and inspect the sewerage and waterworks of some other towns, and make suggestions for a plan of proceeding with both in Preston:
He made this motion in no hostile spirit, but almost in entire ignorance of what was going on in the borough… he was desirous that information should be diffused so that every gentleman should have a full knowledge of the question when he was required to vote upon the waterworks – or the sewerage (236).
All work on the waterworks was meanwhile suspended. The committee, composed of Peter Catterall, Thomas Miller, John Goodair, Birley himself and Richard Threlfall who as mayor ‘would be a very good passport… to some of the most considerable towns in England’ made good use of the railways. To find out about sewerage they visited in the next 3 months eight towns in the north west, and sent detailed questionnaires (drafted in consultation with Wrigg) to 27 others (237); and visited waterworks in twelve places including Lambeth, Southwark, Vauxhall and Deptford (238).
The immensely detailed technical information which was collected (239) drew the burgesses’ representatives into lengthy engineering debates: on the shape of the sewers, on the quality of brick to be used, on the relationship between the initial and the maintenance costs of block paving and boulder stones, on the sewerage falls – ‘an engineering question which they were not competent to deal with’ as one of them said. Only one point was clear: as Preston was the only town which was constructing its sewers by direct labour, they should make an experiment with the standard practice of letting the work by contract, but even this was decided only by long argument.
The waterworks investigation revealed that Mr Wrigg was using what appeared to be eccentric and extravagant methods. Finding nowhere to get rid of waste soil he was dumping it in one of the reservoirs thus reducing the depth by three feet; and building three filter beds for triple filtration of the water, which the committee, finding only single filtration at other waterworks, immediately challenged. They were also uneasy about Wrigg’s brick faced vertical walls compared with the inclined walls of other works, especially as Wrigg’s had begun to collapse; about the gathering grounds, the conduits and the reserve storage capacity. The waterworks question became a battle over rival engineers, between the committee who favoured the advice of Mr Quick (engineer to the Southwark waterworks), and an opposition led by Robert Parker who favoured Mr Hawksley. Parker feared that Quick’s root and branch condemnation of Wrigg’s plan was self interested, and between the beginning and end of July 1856 he learned enough about Quick and his reputation (Southwark waterworks were condemned in a Blue Book as giving the worst water in London) to defeat the committee (240). Hawksley reported diplomatically in April 1857, whereupon Park, Son and Garlick were commissioned to finish the works. It was noticeable that Henry Wrigg’s professional status, though not his-conduct, was treated with increasing respect in the long process of dismissing him from both his positions: they were wrong, said Robert Parker in July, to assert that Wrigg ‘was merely a servant of the board… he was a public servant whose reputation was at stake’; and in a debate in October on paying Wrigg a bonus of £400 upon his resigning both offices, led by John Goodair and opposed by Peter Catterall, the balance of opinion was on Wrigg’s side (242).
The waterworks and the sewerage of the town were henceforth completed as they should have begun, separately; the duties of the Surveyor and of the Engineer were separately defined, the new Surveyor (John Newton) to be employed at a fixed salary of £250; and Park, Son and Garlick, as Engineers to the Waterworks, by commission of £5 per cent on the cost of the works (243).
The hub of local affairs was the residential centre of Christ Church ward. Some few individuals (Robert Ascroft, Philip Park, John Goodair, Peter Catterall, Thomas Miller, Richard Threlfall jun. and George Smith in particular) had served in the forefront of leadership over the vital concerns of the community through the two most important decades of the century. They had reacted to circumstances more quickly than the formally constituted leadership as a whole. They had recognised in a general way the need for ‘collectivist’ solutions to the problems of an urban environment, but had failed to foresee the organisational implications. When divided over collectivist issues, their divisions did not correspond to political differences, but arose from uncertainties as to means rather than ends although at some stage millowners of Fishwick ward impeded the leadership of millowners of St. Peter’s ward. The leaders had been changed by their experience, they were increasingly responsive to their electorate, but when confronted by strictly technical and professional problems they had not yet conceded the initiative to salaried officers.