The Municipal Reform Act – 1835
Prior to the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, local government in the eighteenth century had been characterised by a dedication to self-interest and to the freeman rather than the inhabitants of the town they purported to serve. The necessity of reform finally came, however, with the process of industrialisation and urbanisation, which brought about societal changes in a variety of forms and rendered the control of the landed aristocracy irrelevant and inappropriate to the needs and demands of the ‘new urban environment.
The concentration of the new working-class communities within towns and the ascendance of the entrepreneurial middle-class remodelled the social structure of the traditional communities. The exclusiveness and remoteness of the old corporations provoked much dissatisfaction among the new industrial elite. Established methods of election to the old corporation caused much irritation and the Radicals blamed such processes of co-option and corruption on the inadequacy of corporate management. Finally the constant threat of crumbling law and order within the new large cities was aggravated by outbreaks of violence on the part of such groups as the Luddites, suggesting that town and city life would always be accompanied by a lack of adequate policing.
This then formed the background against which a reappraisal of the old corporations was undertaken by the Municipal Commission. This investigation was largely instigated and conducted by the Whig and Radical contingencies in Parliament. Fraser (1976, 79) describes the Radical onslaught on the Tory-dominated corporations and the production of a powerful attack on their corruption and malpractice. A bill was produced calling for the establishment of elected councils with household suffrage, a three-year residence and rate-paying franchise. The final bill called for one quarter of the council to be made up of aldermen, elected by the council for a term of six years and required that councillors should have a substantial property qualification. Boroughs with a population of over six thousand would be divided into wards taking account of rateable value as well as numbers.
Thus in September 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act was passed and a Radical victory won. Joseph Parkes the secretary to the Municipal Commission, a lawyer and a radical in politics remarked, ‘…It is a practical victory over the Lords and Tory aristocracy…I am content’. (Parkes Papers – Univ. Coll. London).
Preston, possessing a population in excess of six thousand was thus a required to be divided into wards – this was conducted by representatives of the Municipal Commission. Their report described Preston as being at that time in a very prosperous state owing to the presence of cotton manufacturing in the town.
According to the Parliamentary Boundary Act, the Township of Fishwick was to be included within the Parliamentary limits and the town was finally divided into six wards; St. John’s, Fishwick, Christchurch, Trinity, St. George’s and St. Peter’s. The divisions drawn up by the commissioners determined the social and geographical representation of the community on the town council. In fact, the drawing of the ward boundaries proved to have significant effects on the political composition of the town council.
The population most hostile to the Tories were confined within two wards out of the six; thus, even if they elected sixteen Radical aldermen and councillors between them, they could do nothing against the wishes or votes of the other four wards. Also the property qualifications for candidates in council elections, which were a real or personal property of £1,000 or the occupation of premises of £30 rateable value, were heavily weighted in favour of the stable, respectable, wealthy and ‘politically’ safe .
The reaction to the Municipal Reform Act in Preston was mixed and some feelings were running high, particularly with regard to the practice of bribery. Since most of the corrupt or reformed corporations had been composed of Tories it was believed that their removal would quash Tory influence and that the new corporations would become Radical strongholds.
A representative response may be obtained from the two local newspapers at that time. The Preston Pilot – the Tory paper – decried the obvious continuations of corruption:
The viciousness that was wont to be ascribed to the system of self-election in the old corporations was purity itself, compared with the depravity that shamelessly displays itself under the reformed (!!!) rule.
(Preston Pilot, November 4th 1837)
… the measure pretending to be called a Municipal Reform Act was not conceived, progressed and completed by its authors solely and entirely from political, aye, the meanest of political motives? For is it not notorious that the Whig administration carried their Municipal Reform Bill, declaredly in order to get rid of the old Tory Corporations and to replace them by Municipal Bodies of their own politics.
(Preston Pilot, November 3rd 1838)
The Whig Preston Chronicle, however, was more optimistic:
The Act for improving the constitution of Municipal Corporations is assuredly a measure of great national importance and will, we confidently believe (imperfect as it may be in some of its details) contribute much to the comfort, prosperity and harmony of the several communities over which its influence will extend.
(Preston Chronicle, September 26th 1835)
Whatever their feelings on the Act itself they were united in their resolve to urge the electorate of Preston to employ their common sense in electing their future councillors:
… municipal elections ought not to be prompted to serve the cause of this or that political party for such an object appears to be altogether foreign to the purpose of securing the most efficient guardians and managers of the corporation funds.
(Preston Pilot, November 4th 1837)
Similarly in the Preston Chronicle:
It will become the duty of each elector to discharge from his mind every undue bias to which he may be predisposed through a feeling of political party spirit … acting not for a party; not for an individual; not even for himself exclusively; but for the community whose general interests are concerned.
(September 26th 1835)