MY AN­CES­TOR WAS A... COUN­CIL­LOR

Jad Adams looks at how you can trace your public­spir­ited an­ces­tor’s in­volve­ment in lo­cal govern­ment

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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

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