180th Anniversary of Town Council Elections

This month marks the anniversary of a completely new system of local elections being implemented throughout England and Wales. One hundred and eighty years ago, almost 180 boroughs in England and Wales began to publish the lists of all those eligible to vote in the new town council elections created by the 1835 Municipal Reform Act. Barely three weeks after the Act’s passage, specially appointed revising barristers started setting up registration courts to decide who would be able to vote in what initally looked like being a remarkably democratic franchise. Unlike the parliamentary household vote – only given to those occupying property worth at least £10 a year in rental value – the new municipal franchise had no minimum property requirement. In theory every male householder, no matter how humble his dwelling, would be able to take part.

Hand written council voting paper, 1835

Hand written council voting paper, 1835

As the revising barristers set about making their lists another group of lawyers were also busy. The Municipal Corporations Act completely eradicated all the old town corporations, many of which were self-electing and controlled by patrons, ending a system of local government that in some places had been around for over 500 years. All town halls and other corporate property had to be transferred to the new councils, but with exceptions or compensation for anything that belonged to private institutions or individuals, such as independent charities and freemen. The legal fallout from this, especially over inherited debts and liabilities, often rumbled on for years, leading to costly court cases and numerous appeals to parliament.

It was the impact on local politics and democratic accountability, however, that was most striking. For many local reformers the creation of elected town councils in 1835 amounted to a far more significant event than the 1832 Reform Act. Annual elections, in particular, made municipal reform a far more relevant and ‘popular’ measure than parliamentary reform. The political memorabilia that was produced to celebrate the 1832 Reform Act is fairly well known. What is often overlooked is the vast amount of very similar material made to celebrate the ‘crushing of the closed corporations’ in 1835, usually on a borough by borough basis.

Stockport Municipal Reform Jug

Stockport Municipal Reform Jug

A number of studies of electoral behaviour in this period have suggested how important municipal reform was in stimulating local party organisation. One factor behind this, which at first seems rather odd, is that the number of town council electors often turned out to be much smaller than had been expected – in some boroughs it was even less than the number who qualified for the parliamentary vote. The reason for this, which soon became apparent at the first October registration, was the registration requirement for municipal voters to have been resident for 3 years and to have paid all their local rates up to the last 6 months – in effect 2 ½ years of ratepaying. Parliamentary electors, by contrast, only had to have been resident for the last 6 months and to have paid a minimum of 2 ½ months’ rates.

This huge difference in rating and residency requirements meant that those who moved around a lot, missed the odd rate payment, or paid their rates to a landlord rather than directly, failed to qualify as council voters. As a result, the municipal and parliamentary franchises turned out to be remarkably similar in practice. Party activity in helping to enrol supporters for one set of elections therefore often had implications for the other electoral register, and it was not long before the local registration associations that had started to be formed to aid parliamentary campaigns also began to have a politicising effect on local municipal elections as well.

1835 Coventry Municipal Reform Medal

Coventry Municipal Reform Medal

One final lasting legacy of the town council system introduced in 1835 was its stimulus to local politicians and the creation of a new culture of civic service. Many long-serving councillors, mayors and aldermen went on to try their hand at parliamentary politics, both as organisers and candidates. An increasing number eventually found their way into the Victorian Commons, as the MP biographies being compiled for the 1832-68 project are beginning to make abundantly clear. For more information about how to access this material, via our 1832-68 preview site, please click here.

Further reading:

  • F. Moret, The End of the Urban Ancient Elite in England (2015)
  • J. Phillips, ‘England’s other ballot question: the unnoticed political revolution of 1835’, in C. Jones, P. Salmon & R. Davis (eds.), Partisan politics, principle and reform in parliament and the constituencies, 1689-1880 (2005)
  • P. Salmon, ‘Local politics and partisanship: the electoral impact of municipal reform, 1835’, Parliamentary History (2000), ix. 357-76
  • D. Fraser (ed.), Municipal reform and the industrial city (1982)
  • B. Keith-Lucas, The English local government franchise (1952)
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