Nostalgia: Reformers spurred into action

Lord John Russell, left, presented a bill to the Commons to reform old corporations; right, Sir George Cayley was never comfortable in the Commons and wanted to step down in 1835.
Lord John Russell, left, presented a bill to the Commons to reform old corporations; right, Sir George Cayley was never comfortable in the Commons and wanted to step down in 1835.

A fortnight after the Royal Commission inquiry into Scarborough Corporation, the Town Hall published a defensive report rebutting “the frivolous and unfounded charges and misrepresentations” that had been levelled against its conduct. The Old Guard was defiant and unrepentant. In August 1835, after the House of Lords had rejected the Municipal Corporations Bill, which would have swept away all local government bodies like Scarborough’s, a petition was sent to the House of Lords asking them to exempt the town from its provisions if they were forced to pass it into law!

The resistance of the Corporation to reform had been bolstered by the result of the parliamentary election of January 1835. By then it seems that the enthusiasm for radical change had subsided. Though the previous parliamentary poll had been little more than two years earlier, during that time the Tories inside and outside the Town Hall had been jolted into reaction, and the Whigs had become jaded or complacent.

The same three candidates as in 1832 had presented themselves to roughly the same electorate, but the result this time represented a seismic political shift. Only 459 votes had been declared compared with 685; Trench had jumped from bottom to top; and Cayley had been ousted. Sir George had never been comfortable in the Commons and wanted to step down and out in 1835. However, the Whigs could find no candidate of his local stature and prevailed upon him to stand again. In a farewell speech to his supporters, given at Houson’s Hotel (The Bull) on January 7, 1835, Sir George astutely explained that “without Corporate reform the Reform Bill itself is an incomplete guardian of your liberties”. He was right: as long as the town was owned and run by the backward-looking Tories, parliamentary reform in the boroughs was almost irrelevant.

Trench’s victory and Cayley’s defeat now spurred the reformers into action. On March, 2, 1835, “Under the direction of the Scarborough Society for the Protection and Extension of Civil and Religious Liberty”, The Burgess made its first appearance on the town’s streets, price one penny. It deplored the recent lack of support for “two liberal candidates, of known good moral character; not drunkards, or those who would squander their property”. On the next page it declared that the paper’s aims were to protect tradesmen against intimidation; to secure the full registration of eligible voters; to address petitions which “embodied the real sentiments of the town”; and to reduce election expenses on banners, music, canvassing etc”, and instead conduct “a war of principle against gold.” Clearly, the editors of The Burgess were convinced that Trench had bought his way into Westminster.

A month later, now at the cover cost of three farthings, The Burgess launched an attack on the Church of England, “the Tory party at prayer”. Complaining about the huge incomes of archbishops and bishops, it suggested that their attendance in the House of Lords was a costly liability.

On May 1, 1835, The Burgess express delight at the formation of Lord Melbourne’s Whig administration and printed part of the election address of Lord John Russell, the new Home Secretary. It might have been directed against corporations like Scarborough’s:

...self-elected corporations tend to violations of trust,

perversions of justice, the abuse of charitable funds,

political jobbing, and the injury of communities,

for whose benefit they were established.

The following month, 500 Scarborough men signed an address to Lord John Russell, who had given notice in the Commons that he intended soon to present a bill to reform the old corporations. So during that summer, the two sides in Scarborough squared up to each other. A petition endorsed by the Corporation arguing against reform received 115 signatures, whereas one also to the Commons in support of the Municipal Corporations Bill won 1,152 signatures.

In response to the partisanship of The Burgess, the town’s Tories set up The Scarborough Loyal and Constitutional Association, and sponsored a list of candidates for the forthcoming municipal elections to be held under the new law. By that time, however, it was evident that, as further facts of Corporation corruption and favouritism were revealed by The Burgess, the Blues were doomed.

More and more “Blue leases” were being made public knowledge. Whereas previously the custom had been for the Corporation to grant only one-year leases, recently they had been doled out to friends, relatives and political allies for a minimum of seven years. There were three particularly blatant examples. Messrs Morrison and Chapman had been given the most lucrative monopoly of the foreshore sands for their bathing machines for seven years at an annual rent of ten shillings; Miss Jane Donner had a lease of the Common, an extensive area on either side of what became Victoria Road, for seven years; and, worst of all, Miss Henderson was paying five shillings a year on a lease of 50 years for part of St Nicholas Cliff.

Addressing a Commons committee in July 1835, Edward Cayley, one of Yorkshire county’s Whig MPs, complained of such practices routinely carried out in advance of reform: “If this Bill [Municipal Corporations] does not quickly become law, they [Scarborough Borough Council] will have leased away the whole of the corporation property.”

As a result, the Municipal Corporations Act was rushed through Parliament and by its terms the old corporations, such as Scarborough’s, were abolished. A resident, rate-paying male electorate of 549 was authorised to replace it. The ancient borough boundaries were retained, but now it was divided into two wards, North and South, each with nine places.

The result of the poll, announced triumphantly by The Burgess on January 1, 1836, was “the most signal defeat” for the old regime: only one of them, John Woodall of Belvoir Terrace, survived the slaughter. Top of the list in the North Ward was Samuel Byron of 7 Granby Place, the arch-enemy of the “old corporators”. At their first meeting in the Town Hall, the new councillors chose Byron as their mayor. As one contemporary pointed out, Scarborough’s previous mayor had been tossed in a blanket; this one was carried into the office on the shoulders of its burgesses.