Reforming Preston – section 3

Politics and the town councillors

On Thursday, 31st December 1835, the first newly elected town council of the Municipal Corporations Act was announced. Hennock (1973) describes the crucial characteristics which, ideally, a town councillor should possess. Firstly, ‘station’ or ‘respectability’; secondly, men of ‘substance’, ‘property’ or ‘wealth’; and thirdly, men of ‘intelligence’ or ‘education’. Their aim was to forge a link between council and community to replace the long years of municipal remoteness in which the old corporation had indulged.

In Preston, ten of the councillors who had sat on the unreformed corporation were re-elected and five of these were raised to alderman — the political composition of the council remained immediately unchanged, unlike the position in other northern industrial towns, such as Leeds and Birmingham, where Fraser’s and Hennock’s work has shown a massive shift of power towards the Liberal councillors.

Table 2: Results of the first municipal elections
    Councillors elected
Town Date Liberal Tory
Leeds Dec 1835 42 6
Liverpool Dec 1835 43 5
Leicester Dec 1835 38 4
Nottingham Dec 1835 27 15
Manchester Nov 1838 48 0
Birmingham Dec 1838 48 0
Salford Jul 1844 18 6
Bradford August 1847 30 12
Preston Nov 1835 19 29
Source. Fraser: Urban Politics in Victorian Cities (1976)

The table shows quite clearly that the Reform Act has transferred the balance of power, and that these centres of industrial activity were for the most part, under Liberal control.

Such a trend was, however, not at all apparent in Preston. The old Tory-dominated corporation became a new reformed yet still Tory-dominated corporation, and although the Liberals gained many more seats than previously, there was little transference of power. This may be explained by the fact that conservatism was powerful among the employer-class of the northern weaving towns of Lancashire, and Preston provides an excellent example of a long-established Tory employer-class who enjoyed links of birth and society with the gentry.

During the late 1830s and early 1840s the liberals began to lose their seats consistently on the council and, except for a brief period between 1846 and 1851 when they regained some measure of representation, and again towards 1860, they were outnumbered by as many as three to one on the council. The Preston Pilot made no secret of its support for the Tory domination:

Whilst, therefore the public may rest assured ‘ that this strength will never be used for the purposes of oppression, so they may also be satisfied that it will be (all) sufficient at all times to protect the town from the evil consequences that might result from Radical innovations.
(November 4th 1837)

and it even boasted the fact that the council was almost exclusively composed of ‘gentlemen professing conservative principles. However, there still remained a feeling in the town that politics in itself should not be a deciding factor in the election of councillors. The arrival of a new local paper in the town in 1844, owned by a Liberal councillor John Livesey and in spite of supporting Liberal politics at every available opportunity made its opinions clear:

We have no wish to see the council composed of Liberals to the exclusion of others who are better fitted for public duties; but we can see no reason why a Liberal town, with Liberal representative in Parliament, should always be governed by a Tory corporation, while many superior men, attached to the Liberal party remain out of the council.
(Preston Guardian, October 9th 1847)

Political composition of Preston Town Council 1835-1860

Table 3: The political composition of Preston town council 1835-1860
  Tory/Whig or Conservative Reform or
1835 29 13 6
1836 32 11 5
1837 35 9 4
1838 39 7 2
1839 42 6
1840 42 6
1841 43 5
1842 43 5
1843 42 6
1844 43 5
1845 41 7
1846 38 10
1847 35 13
1848 34 14
1849 35 13
1850 37 11
1851 38 10
1852 39 9
1853 39 6 3
1854 40 5 3
1855 40 7 1
1856 39 9
1857 38 11
1858 36 11 1
1859 33 14 1
1860 32 15 1
Source: unpublished thesis by N. Morgan 1980 ‘Social and Political Leadership in Nineteenth-Century Preston’

This was a curious yet real situation, and throughout the period 1835 to 1860 the Conservative-domination only once fell below thirty councillors, and that was in the first year of reformed municipal government. Of the twenty-five mayors during that period only three of them were Liberals – in 1837, 1844 and 1848, and of the forty-eight aldermen during those twenty-five years, only six of them were Liberals.

Throughout the study period St. Peter’s ward was the only one of the six wards which consistently elected a majority of Liberal councillors. This ward, which covered the north and northwest areas of the town, contained much of the limited areal expansion which Preston experienced between the 1820s and 1850s and also had many of the town’s numerous cotton mills within its boundaries.

However, the political character of the council was only occasionally referred to in the town’s newspapers and usually only at election time in November, when it was practices of-corruption-rather than party politics which captured the headlines. In the minutes of the council and sub-committee meetings the politics of councillors are rarely mentioned and the occupations of the men elected to positions of civic responsibility attracted more notice than their political affiliations.

Clearly there were obvious disagreements-between those possessing conservative principles and those more liberal principles, yet much of the inevitable party animosity seems to have been confined to election periods. Normal council business remained free from essentially political battles, and even the liberal Preston Guardian, and its proprietor and councillor Joseph Livesey praise the council’s impartiality:

Preston is fortunate in having a non-political corporation. The opinion of men on general affairs apart from local considerations are left free and unbiased as they should be; and to this is attributable the better feeling and greater unamity which prevail, not only in the council, but in the Borough generally, than in most large towns and even in small places, cursed with factions municipalities.
(Preston Guardian, October 25th 1845)

Table 4: new members of Preston Town Council
Nov 1836 4 2C; 1L Nov 1848 4 2C; 2L; 1?
Nov 1837 5 3C; 1L Nov 1849 3 3C
Nov 1838 6 6C Nov 1850 1 1C
Nov 1839 6 5C; 1L Nov 1851 3 2C; 1L
Nov 1840 0 Nov 1852 2 2C
Nov 1841 1 1C Nov 1853 4 2C; 1L; 1?
Nov 1842 4 3C; 1L Nov 1854 6 5C; 1L
Nov 1843 3 1C; 2L Nov 1855 5 4C; 1L
Nov 1844 4 4C Nov 1856 4 2C; 2L
Nov 1845 3 3C; 1L Nov 1857 7 4C; 3L
Nov 1846 3 1C; 1L Nov 1858 2 1C; 1L
Nov 1847 5 2C; 2L; 1? Nov 1859 4 3C; 1L

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