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Chapter XXVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 3


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Notwithstanding the careless manner thus ridiculed, there was much sincerity in the nature of lord Melbourne; and there is no doubt that he laboured with an honest purpose to make his administration useful to the country, though not with so much activity and energy, or with such constant solicitude to secure success, as his predecessor had brought to the task. As it was now advancing towards the end of the session, he confined his attention to two great measures of reform - the Irish tithe question (of which we have already disposed) and the question of municipal reform. It is scarcely necessary to remark that abuses in corporations had been a matter of constant and general complaint for two centuries. But it was hopeless to expect a remedy so long as the parliamentary representation was so inadequate and corrupt. The rotten and venal boroughs, of which the franchise was abolished or amended by the Reform Act, were the chief seats of abuse. The correction of the local evil would have been the destruction of the system by which the ruling party in the state sustained its political power. There were, therefore, the most powerful interests at work, restraining each from attempting the work of reform; but by the parliamentary Reform Act these interests were abolished, and those local fountains of corruption could no longer pour their foetid contents into the legislature. Statesmen now felt at liberty to abate those nuisances. Yet the work was not as speedily accomplished as might have been expected. It is true that lord Grey advised the king to issue a commission of inquiry in July, 1833, but it was not until the 5th of June, 1835, that any measure was brought forward upon the subject. The commission consisted of twenty gentlemen, who were to proceed with the utmost dispatch to inquire as to the existing state of the municipal corporations in England and Wales, and to collect information respecting the defects in their constitution, to make inquiry into their jurisdiction and powers as to/the administration of justice, and in all other respects; and also into the mode of electing and appointing the members and officers of such corporations, into the privileges of the freemen and other members thereof, and into the nature and management of the income, revenues, and funds of the said corporations. They divided the whole of England and Wales into districts, each of which was assigned to two commissioners. Their reports on individual corporations occupied five folio volumes. The whole was presented in a general report, signed by sixteen of the commissioners. Two of them, Sir Francis Palgrave and Mr. Hogg, dissented, and signed, protests, which were printed; but no great weight was attached to them. The report concluded as follows: - "Even where these institutions exist in their least imperfect form, and are most rightfully administered, they are inadequate to the wants of the present state of society. In their actual condition, where not productive of positive evil, they exist, in the great majority of instances, for no purpose of general utility. The perversion of municipal institutions to political ends has occasioned the sacrifice of local interests to party purposes, which have been frequently pursued through the corruption and demoralisation of the electoral bodies. In conclusion, we report to your majesty that there prevails amongst the inhabitants of a great majority of the incorporated towns a general - and, in our opinion, a just - dissatisfaction with their municipal institutions; a distrust of the self- elected municipal councils, whose powers are subject to no popular control, and whose acts and proceedings, being secret, are unchecked by the influence of public opinion; a distrust of the municipal magistracy, tainting with suspicion the local administration of justice, and often accompanied with contempt of the persons by whom the law is administered; a discontent under the burdens of local taxation, while revenues which ought to be applied for the public advantage are diverted from their legitimate use, and are sometimes wastefully bestowed for the benefit of individuals, or squandered for purposes injurious to the character and morals of the people. We, therefore, feel it to be our duty to represent to your majesty that the existing municipal corporations of England and Wales neither possess nor deserve the confidence or respect of your majesty's subjects, and that a thorough reform must be effected before they can become what we humbly submit to your majesty 'they ought to be - useful and efficient instruments of local government."

The number of places in which the inquiries under the commission were carried on was 237, having a population of 2,028,513. In twenty-five places the number of corporators was not ascertained; in the others (212), they amounted to 88,509. The governing body was self- elected in 186 boroughs. This body elected the mayor in 131 boroughs, appointed the recorder in 136, and the town-clerk in 135. The number of corporators exercising magisterial functions was 1,086, in 188 boroughs. In 112 boroughs the corporations had exclusive criminal jurisdiction, extending to the trial of various descriptions of offences, and in forty-two their jurisdiction was not exclusive. Seventeen boroughs did not enjoy any income whatever; in eight the precise amount could not be obtained. The total income of 212 boroughs amounted to 366,948; their expenditure to 377,027. 103 were involved in debts amounting to 1,855,371, and were besides burdened with annuities amounting to 4,463. In twenty- eight boroughs only were the accounts published; in fifteen, the annual income was under 20; in eleven, it was between 2,000 and 3,000; in five, 3,000, and under 4,000; in one, 4,000, and under 5,000; in four, 5,000, and under 7,500; in five, 10,000, and under 12,500; in one, 12,500, and under 15,000; in one, 15,000, and under 20,000; and in one, 91,000.

The measure which was founded on the recommendations of the report was advocated principally by lord John Russell, lord Melbourne, and Mr. C. Hobhouse. The plan was intended to provide for 183 corporations, extending to a population of at least 2,000,000. Many of these corporations governed large and important towns, of which they did not sufficiently represent the property, intelligence, and population. In Bedford the corporation composed only one in seventy of the people, and one-fortieth of the property. In Oxford there were only 1,400 electors, and seldom more than 500 voted at an election. In Norwich, 315 of the electors were paupers. In Cambridge there were only 118 freemen, out of a population of 20,000; and while the annual rental was more than 25,000, the property of freemen amounted to little more than 2,000. These were only samples of the strange anomalies that everywhere prevailed. It was obvious to every one that corporations so constituted were altogether unfitted for the objects which they were originally designed to answer. On the contrary, they tended directly to frustrate those objects, and to render the proper government of towns impracticable. They engendered jealousy and distrust between the small governing power and the body of the people. A few persons carrying on the government for their own benefit were connected with a portion of the lower classes, whose votes they purchased, and whose habits they demoralised. With such a monopoly the grossest abuses were inevitable. Charitable funds, often large in amount, which had been left for the benefit of the whole people, were either lavishly distributed among the venal dependants of the governing body, squandered on civic feasts, or spent in bribing the freemen, in order to secure their votes. In short, the general if not the universal practice had been to use the powers of municipal corporations, not for the good government or benefit of the towns over which they presided - not in order that they might fee well and quietly governed in the terms of the charters, but for the sole purpose of establishing an interest which might be useful in the election of members of parliament. It was absurd to contend that the exclusion and eventual suppression of freemen as such from the elections of members of municipal councils was a confiscation of existing rights. To leave them in possession of power was to entail upon the boroughs "the curse of these poor, degraded, wretched, demoralised voters, whose rights were nothing but an usurpation, that was tolerated because it was found to be convenient to all parties for political purposes. These freemen were not necessarily resident in the borough; they need not possess any qualification as to property; they need not pay rates; and, in fact, they might pass the greater part of the year in the poor-house, or in gaol." The natural consequence was, that, degraded and corrupt themselves, they polluted the electoral body with which they were connected. The excision of such an utterly rotten portion of the electoral system was manifestly necessary to the well-being of the state.

It was impossible to defend a system like this, and therefore the conservatives offered no opposition to the principle of the bill; their aim being to save as much as possible of the old system, which had rendered much more service to them than to the whigs, and presented a number of barriers to the advance of democratic power. Sir Robert Peel, with lord Stanley and Sir James Graham, who were now the ablest antagonists their former whig colleagues had to encounter, pleaded powerfully for the delinquent boroughs; not for absolute acquittal, but for mitigation of punishment. They would not go the length of asserting that freemen were altogether immaculate; for of what body of electors could that be predicted? " To err is human; " our nature is corrupt. It is a matter of course, therefore, that some measure of sin should be expected from every class of men; but were those who only partook of the general depravity to be disfranchised - altogether deprived of their political rights? The question was not whether it was eight to admit these men for the first time, but whether they should be deprived of the rights that they and their ancestors had enjoyed for centuries. The reformers were the first to propose, covertly and insidiously, a great and important change in the reform bill. What did they mean by first bringing in a bill which was based on perpetuating the rights of freemen and recognising them as an integral part of the constitution, and now, within three years, bringing in another intending to deprive them of their rights? Was not this a precedent for breaking up the final settlement, which might be followed on future occasions? Might not another ministry deem it for their advantage to extinguish the 10 electors? And where was this to stop? Could it stop while a fragment remained of the Reform Act - the boasted second charter o the people of England? If there were guilty parties, let them be punished. Let convicted boroughs be disfranchised; but let not whole bodies of electors be annihilated because some of their members may have been corrupt. Were the 10 voters perfectly immaculate? and, if not, on what principle were they spared, while the freemen were condemned? The whigs had created the reform act; but now - infatuated men! - they were about to lay murderous hands upon their own offspring.

Thus argued the conservatives, and not without effect, for the clause against disfranchising the freemen was carried only by a majority of twenty-eight; and in the passage through the lords several important amendments were carried against the government, owing chiefly to the vigorous opposition of lord Lyndhurst. On an amendment which he proposed - to omit the clause disfranchising the freemen - he defeated the government by a majority of 93; the numbers being 130 to 37. He followed up this victory by a motion to secure to the freemen their parliamentary franchise, which was carried without a division. The commons thought it better to adopt most of these alterations, however repugnant to their feelings, rather than lose the measure. The bill, as amended, was accordingly passed on the 7 th of September. London, with its numerous and wealthy incorporated guilds, was reserved for future legislation.

The great feature of this reform is that it secures local self-government. The basis of this government is the rated and resident population. Every male person of full age, who on the last day of August in any year shall have occupied premises within the borough continuously within the three previous years, and shall for that time have been an inhabitant householder within seven miles of the borough, provided that he shall have been rated to the poor-rates, and shall have paid them and all borough rates during the time of his occupation, is qualified to vote for the town council. In the council is vested the entire deliberative and administrative functions of the corporation. They appoint the town-clerk and treasurer, and from them the mayor and aldermen are chosen. They have the control of the police, watching, and lighting; they may make bye-laws, and impose fines for their non- observance, for the prevention of nuisances, and the due government of the borough. They have the control of the burgess fund; if there be a surplus after defraying all necessary expenses, they may apply it to local improvements, or any object beneficial to the inhabitants; or, if the fund be insufficient, they may order a rate, of the nature of a. county rate, to be levied. They have also a power, if they think it requisite that one or more salaried police magistrates should be appointed, to fix the amount of such magistrates' salaries, and upon their application, the crown is empowered to appoint the number required. To prevent fraud, jobbing, and waste in the management of the burgess revenue, provision is made for the periodical auditing of accounts, and their subsequent publication. The burgesses yearly appoint two auditors, who must be persons qualified to be councillors, but not actually of that body, lest identity of interest should lead to partiality in the exercise of their function. There are also two assessors elected in like manner. Their duties are to assist the mayor in revising the burgess lists. The qualification of a councillor is a property qualification, varying with the amount of population; in boroughs divided into four or more wards, a real or personal estate of 1,000, or being rated to the poor upon the annual value of at least 30; in other boroughs a moiety of this qualification suffices. The qualification clause was one of the questionable amendments introduced by the lords, as well as that appointing aldermen - an order having precedency merely, and no duties distinct from those of councillors; and who appear to have been created either out of veneration for ancient names and degrees, or from a desire to preserve in the new municipalities a miniature representation of the imperial government of three estates - king, lords, and commons. All the existing rights of freedom or citizenship, or burgess-ship, in the old corporations were preserved to the present possessors. This was just; as many of these immunities consisted of an interest in charities, lands, or exemption from tolls, which had been purchased by money or services, or acquired by lawful inheritance. But all exclusive privileges of trading, or of exercising any calling or handicraft, in corporate towns were abolished. As the act was framed for the reform of existing municipal corporations, it does not apply to the unincorporated towns; but, on the petition of the inhabitant householders of any town not corporate, the crown is empowered to extend the provisions of this important statute by the grant of charters of incorporation.

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Pictures for Chapter XXVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 3

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Lord Mulgrave
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