MY ANCESTOR WAS A... COUNCILLOR
Jad Adams looks at how you can trace your publicspirited ancestor’s involvement in local government
Jad Adams looks at how you can research a public-spirited ancestor’s involvement in local government
Thousands of councillors were in office at any one time in the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries. They were all drawn from the local community, and their activities are a matter of record.
Before the modern form of local government there were the vestries, which for many centuries were the sole civil government of rural areas. If your ancestor was a property owner then they would have had the right to sit at a meeting, like that of the vestry of Shepperton in Surrey. This met once or twice a month, and was chaired by the rector (the most senior grade of parish priest).
They decided on cases like that of poor Elizabeth Horsham who was “apprehended in the parish as a rogue and a vagabond, wandering and lying in a barn and having no visible means of getting a livelihood”. The records show that the vestry of Shepperton discussed her case on 7 July 1792, in her presence (illiterate Elizabeth signed with “X” as her mark). She attested that she came from Mortonhampstead in Devon, and the meeting decided that, since they didn’t want her to be a charge on the rates, she should be sent home. Devon was a long way, however, so they ordered their constable to take her to Egham, Surrey, “being the first place in the next precinct thro’ which she might pass on her way to Morton Hampstead”. Much of the work of vestries was concerned with this sort of case under the old Poor Law, until it was superseded in 1834.
The first modernisation was in 1835 with the Municipal
Corporations Act. It set the structure of local authorities, which were (and are) based on small areas called ‘wards’ that elect councillors to represent them. Successive Victorian laws then reformed other administrative areas, so that every part of the country had councils with overlapping responsibilities.
The factor they all had in common was popular elections. The councillors who made up the council were elected ward by ward, as they are today. Until 1948 people could vote both in the place where they owned property and where they lived. After the Representation of the People Act of that year, all voters had one vote apiece and would be eligible if their names were listed on the electoral register. From 1869 women ratepayers, as well as men, had the right to vote in local elections. Sometimes elections were uncontested, because the number of people wanting to be councillors equalled the available seats: in 1900 there was no contest, or only a partial contest, in 490 boroughs.
The term of office varied, but a common pattern was for councillors to be elected for a three-year term, and for a third of the council to be elected every year. You will see councillors referred to in the records as “Cllr” or “Cr”; they could stand for re-election, and many served for decades.
Eligibility for council
To stand for election, a person had to be a British citizen of full age (which meant 21, until 1970 when it became 18); and to have an address in the place where they aspired to be elected, so they had to live or work there. They had to have the support of two or more voters to sign their nomination paper (for county and borough elections outside London, 10 signatures were required). A councillor could not hold a paid office within the local authority where they were serving, and no one could be a member of the local authority if they were in receipt of relief under the old Poor Law system, until it was abolished in 1929. People ‘of unsound mind’ could not stand for election, and anyone who had been imprisoned for three months was disqualified for five years – as were bankrupts.
No one had to join a political party to stand, and many successful local politicians stood as independents or with such titles as ‘Ratepayers’ candidate’. Party affiliations tended to be looser for local than national government, and this is reflected in political descriptions from the 19th and the first three decades of the 20th century. The ‘Progressives’ might control a council, then relinquish power to the ‘Municipal Reform Group’. In fact, these labels closely correspond to the Liberal and Conservative parties respectively in national politics. Women were allowed to stand from 1907.
For the 19th and most of the 20th century, no payment was made to councillors. Later they were paid only a small amount reflecting attendance at meetings and travelling expenses. As an unpaid post, municipal office tended to attract commercial and professional people, married women and the retired. County councils were filled with members of the upper classes in the 19th century: in 1889 there were 131 county councillors who were also members of the House of
Lords. Thomas Thynne, the 5th Marquess of Bath, chaired Wiltshire County Council from 1906 to 1946.
A fair helping of radicals and tradesmen sought election, however, particularly in manufacturing towns and with the support of their trade unions or co-operatives. Conflict with traditional approaches led to some dramatic events, such as the imprisonment of the Labour councillors of Poplar in 1921 for refusing to set a rate that they said would be onerous on the poor. They marched triumphantly out of Brixton Gaol singing the Socialist anthem The Red Flag.
Your elected ancestors would vote with others on the council, but they did not have to belong to a party group. Even a lone voice would be heard, because all councillors had an equal right to speak in committees and at the full council meeting. Elected councillors sat on committees such as Social Services, which oversaw welfare plus children’s and old people’s homes; the Watch Committee, which oversaw policing; and committees on Public Health, Housing, Highways, Town Planning, Education and Finance. There were also special committees – for example, to arrange for the evacuation of children during the Second World War; to administer the council’s responsibilities under legislation such as the Inebriates Act or the Diseases of Animals Act; or even to act as censor for films at the local cinema.
All committee decisions went to the full council for ratification and will therefore appear in the minutes, which is where you will find the names of your elected ancestors and reports of the dayto-day business they oversaw.
The Municipal Year Book ( municipalyearbook.co.uk) lists councillors in every authority with information about officials and facilities in different boroughs such as the Inspector of Nuisances in Glossop, the public abattoir in Burnley, income from Ayr Racecourse, and the Old Clothes Market in Glasgow.
Since councillors were prominent citizens, their activities were reported in local newspapers. A councillor up before the courts on a relatively minor matter could be big news in a small town. For example, on 26 October 1888 the Northern Echo reported that Stockton Town Council member Richard Graham was in court for assaulting a man to whom he owed money, while Toxteth councillor Alexander Smith was taken to court, the Liverpool
Mercury tells us, on 25 February 1842 for not paying for the drinks he was bribing electors with.
Committee and full council meetings were usually covered in the local press in the 19th and 20th centuries, so they are a rich source of information. You might read the authentic voice of an elected ancestor in a newspaper story; the press particularly relished it when councillors bickered at meetings.
Finally, do be aware that the 2000 Local Government Act made major changes to the role and powers of councillors. So knowing about local government today is no guide to your elected ancestor in the past.
A thousand committees and sub-committees were run by the London County Council before 1939
This photograph of a meeting of Hammersmith Borough Council was taken c1903
The Council Chamber of the Guildhall in the City of London, c1886