Nostalgia: Nepotism at heart of Corporation

John Woodall, left, and Sir Frederick William Trench.
John Woodall, left, and Sir Frederick William Trench.

There were many single events in the history of modern Scarborough that might be regarded as decisive: for instance, Mrs Thomasin Farrer’s accidental but providential discovery of medicinal spring waters at the foot of South Cliff; or Dr Robert Wittie’s publication in 1660 of Scarborough Spaw, the first to give widespread publicity to “the virtues of Scarborough water”, and his second edition of 1667, which was the first to recommend cold sea-bathing.

However, if not Mrs Farrer then surely someone else at about the same time, when spas were being found throughout the land, would have claimed their presence on Scarborough’s sea shore? Similarly, Dr Wittie was not the only local practising physician in search of spa cures for the ailments of “persons of quality”.

For reasons which I hope will become evident and compelling, the most momentous, ground-breaking occasion in Scarborough’s modern story took place on Wednesday and Thursday, November 27 and 28, 1833. This was when two of His Majesty’s commissioners conducted an investigation into the constitution and conduct of the borough’s government.

So many apparent triumphs turn all too quickly into dust, and so it was with the so-called Great Reform Act of 1832. None of that “mob” of Scarborians who welcomed it so riotously ever profited from it in ways they had ignorantly assumed. They might have put 44 dolls into holes in the sands, but the same 44 had still their seats in the Town Hall chamber after June 4, 1832.

Most of the Great Reform Act had little effect even on Scarborough’s parliamentary representation. The borough retained its two MPs, a gross over-representation when the Act deprived 56 other old rotten and pocket boroughs of both their seats and 30 more one of them, while previously unrepresented towns, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield, had to make do with only one. The old guard at Scarborough must have exercised extraordinary influence at Westminster to keep the borough’s medieval privilege.

As a result, the borough’s new enlarged electorate of 508 men were entitled to two votes each, and because the ballot was open and public we know that in December 1832 of the 30 councillors eligible to vote (12 were non-residents) only five did not support the anti-reform candidate, Sir Frederick William Trench. He was a hard-line Tory who had told Scarborough’s fishermen, his main supporters, that the Reform Act was “uncalled for, rash, and revolutionary”. He also happened to be related by marriage to the Duke of Rutland, Scarborough’s recorder.

The only consolation to the Whig reformers was that Colonel Trench came bottom of the poll which was headed by Sir John Johnstone of Hackness, followed by Sir George Cayley of Brompton. On the other hand, Johnstone and Cayley were both from well-established, landed gentry families and not residents of the borough. Also, Trench had secured 145 votes, thanks mainly to the backing of the Corporation and the “blue drink” supplied mainly by Edward Donner, councillor and wine merchant.

So when the Crown’s commissioners came to Scarborough in November 1833, the Town Hall was intact: its membership of two bailiffs, two coroners, four chamberlains and the three Twelves, was identical to that of the past five centuries. Of the 44, there was only one present at the inquiry, the shipowner Samuel Byron, number 36 in the Third Twelve, who acted as counsel for the prosecution. The Corporation’s defence committee was led by the town clerk, John Woodall senior; the two bailiffs, John Woodall junior, his son, and William Thornton; the two coroners; and the two oldest members, Anthony Beswick and William Travis, MD.

The commissioners’ report which came out in January 1834 pulled no punches: it was the most thorough and damning condemnation of how the borough’s affairs had been mismanaged during recent years. What the report described euphemistically as the “great prevalence of family influence”, that is nepotism, was beyond dispute. There were five Woodalls, father and four sons, three of whom had been bailiffs, five Fowlers, three Travises, three Coulsons and three Whartons. Since 1811, 50 places had been filled by only 15 families.

It was revealed that residence outside the borough and even absence from Town Hall meetings were no grounds for disqualification. One member had lived in London for the last four years; one lived in Beverley; one in Malton; and another in Filey. Stephen Armitage had emigrated to van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania)! The collector of customs at Whitby had been an absentee for 30 years and another member had attended only once in 45 years “out of curiosity”. Only death disqualified. Byron insisted that as many as a quarter was “unfit and improper”.

Even worse were many cases cited of favouritism, bribery and corruption in the choice of Corporation officers and the grant of licences to publicans. On the second day of the hearings, it was discovered that the Corporation’s finances were not open to scrutiny, not even by the councillors themselves. The town clerk was using the Town Hall building as offices for his private law firm of Woodall, Donner and Woodall. There was some unsolved mystery about what had actually happened to several charitable donations bequeathed to the grammar school, almshouses and hospitals. A dozen years earlier, large tracts of Corporation land had been sold at a nominal price to four members without competition or even public notice.

It was pointed out that if the Corporation continued to privatise property which it had held since 1257 it would soon be unable to meet its expenses. Soon after the passage of the Reform Act in 1832, 21 acres had fetched £1,834 16s, paid by four members of the old bank belonging to John Woodall, the current bailiff.

When he asked about a sum of £37, Byron was told that it had been given to the poor, to which he replied that in fact it had gone to 18 town publicans who had voted for Colonel Trench.

Finally, money received from Newcastle and Sunderland levied on loaded colliers had exceeded the Corporation’s expenditure on the harbour. Sarcastically, Byron asked whether the surplus had been “applied to eating and drinking, and other such useful purposes”. Also, far from being in a state of good repair, as the Corporation spokesman alleged, the Island and Vincent’s piers were in a “disgraceful” condition, “the former little better than a nuisance”.

[to be continued]