A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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CITY GOVERNMENT, 1835-1914
The Reforms of the 1830s
Under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 Chester became a municipal borough governed by a corporation of 30 councillors and 10 aldermen. (fn. 1) Its boundaries were extended to match those of the slightly larger parliamentary constituency created in 1832, (fn. 2) and it was divided into five wards, each with six councillors. (fn. 3) As elsewhere, the latter were elected for three-year terms, two places falling vacant in each ward each year. Aldermen were elected by the councillors for six-year terms, half standing down every three years. The mayor was chosen by the full council on 9 November each year. As a county of itself, the corporation was permitted to appoint a sheriff and a coroner, but was thwarted in its desire to nominate an undersheriff so as to retain the traditional double shrievalty. (fn. 4)
The police powers of the improvement commission were transferred to the city council by the 1835 Act, (fn. 5) but the commission at first kept charge of the fire service and street lighting and cleansing. (fn. 6) There was some confusion over street repairs: the extent of the old corporation's liability had never been clear, the improvement commission maintained some streets, though not to widespread public satisfaction, (fn. 7) and it was uncertain after 1835 whether the council was allowed to apply the rates to that purpose. The matter was resolved in 1837, when, using a provision of the 1835 Act, the improvement commission dissolved itself and transferred its powers to the council. (fn. 8)
In 1836 the Crown reconfirmed the city's separate quarter sessions and appointed a recorder to replace the old corporation's nominee, who had died early in the year. (fn. 9)
Other local government bodies, unchanged during the 1830s, were the bridge commissioners (fn. 10) and the poor-law guardians: in the latter case, the union of Chester parishes established in 1762 was not affected by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. (fn. 11)
At first, with duties enlarged only by the addition of policing and street repairs, the council managed with committees for finance, watch (i.e. police), paving, city lands, repairs and lettings, and markets, the last three merging in 1838 as the corporate estate committee. (fn. 12) Much council business in the very early years was similar to that conducted before 1835, not least because the city's gownsmen and almshouses remained under corporation control until the Municipal Charities Trustees were formed as a separate body in 1837. (fn. 13) The council was also active in attempting to recover corporation property leased on disadvantageous terms by the Assembly, in fending off the Crown's claim to part of the Roodee, (fn. 14) and in taking immediate steps to repair the streets. (fn. 15) Rather more significant for continuity was the reappointment as town clerk of John Finchett-Maddock. (fn. 16) Whether symbolically or simply from a distaste for unnecessary expense, he had the new council's proceedings minuted in the old Assembly Book. (fn. 17)
The most obvious change in 1836 was financial. The finance committee's estimate for its first year was for an outlay of nearly £6,500, but the traditional sources of income (rents and other revenues due to the old corporation) produced just under £4,000, leaving almost £2,500 (38 per cent of the total) to be found from the rates. (fn. 18) Escalating expenditure and static nonrate income briefly took the proportion to over 50 per cent in the early 1840s. (fn. 19)
Council Policies and Activities
The expanding scope of local government in Chester between 1835 and 1914 largely followed the national pattern and was driven as much by the changes in what central government required of urban local authorities as by the aspirations of Chester's councillors and aldermen.
The first extension in the council's activities was effected under a local Improvement Act of 1845, which gave it powers similar to those exercised a little later by local boards of health. (fn. 20) The Act was prompted in part by the need for additional borrowing powers so that the corporation could provide the services which had fallen to it on taking over from the improvement commission. The commissioners had borrowed only £1,000 and their rating powers were tightly constrained; (fn. 21) the Act allowed the council to borrow £10,000 and to raise an improvement rate of up to 9d. in the pound and a lamp rate (to pay for the fire service and street cleansing as well as lighting) of up to 6d. in the pound, (fn. 22) both of them additional to the borough rate. The council set up an improvement committee in 1846 to implement its new executive powers and take over the role of the paving committee. At first progress was slow, except in the greater effectiveness with which it pursued existing policies in minor matters such as obliging property owners to keep the steps giving access to the Rows in repair. (fn. 23)
The more important business of improving the sewerage system was delayed by the corporation's parsimony and by the incompetence and corruption of its first engineer: work on the main streets was not completed until 1854 and much had to be redone in the 1870s. (fn. 24) The council was more energetic in providing better facilities for the markets, another reason for obtaining the Act, but it took time to implement its new powers to buy land and replace inadequate buildings: the cattle market was improved in 1850 but a new building for the main retail markets opened only in 1863. (fn. 25)
Although the council thus began putting into place measures similar to those required under the Public Health Act of 1848 it did not adopt the Act itself, partly on grounds of cost and partly through a dislike of central government intervention in its affairs. On the other hand, faced with an influx of poor Irish migrants during the Potato Famine of the later 1840s, and with deteriorating social conditions in parts of the city, it used powers available under the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act of 1848, through a new sanitary committee on which representatives of the poor-law guardians also sat. Although the committee relied on persuasion rather than compulsion in its relations with property owners, it took the lead, in advance of legislation in 1851, in inspecting the common lodging houses where many of the poorest Cestrians lived, and was credited with averting many deaths during the cholera epidemic of 1848-9. (fn. 26)
The council could also be forceful when it did not have to spend ratepayers' money, notably over shortcomings in the supply of water and gas by private companies. (fn. 27) From 1835 it repeatedly sought improvements to the water supply, while baulking at the cost of buying out the company. The sanitary committee was much concerned with water purity and with the inadequacy of the supply to the mainly working-class district of Handbridge. A water supply committee was set up in 1852 with a brief to consider taking over the company: it pressed for filtration, an extension of the mains, and a constant supply, and by threats and cajoling eventually pushed the company into action in the later 1850s. (fn. 28) The Chester Gas Light Company was of concern mainly because it provided street lighting. Again, the council was eager to complain about the service but unwilling to provide its own; in 1851 it backed a rival new company by renting a site to its promoter and giving him the street-lighting contract, but was outwitted when the new company re-established a monopoly. (fn. 29)
Other issues concerned with public health were handled whenever possible at a distance, though there were occasional signs of more direct involvement. A much needed new public cemetery was provided by a private company in 1848 but the mayor was an ex officio director and part of the land had belonged to the corporation. (fn. 30) In the same year the council facilitated a private initiative to provide a public baths and wash-house by leasing a suitable plot and making a grant; more remarkably, when the promoters ran into financial difficulties, the council took over the baths in 1850 (albeit on a split vote) and in so doing became only the eighth local authority in the country to adopt the 1846 Baths and Wash-houses Act. (fn. 31) The powers obtained under the 1845 Act to buy land as places of public recreation were never exercised, though Chester acquired an early public park in 1867 when the Grosvenor family donated the site of what became Grosvenor park, paid for it to be laid out, and provided an endowment towards its upkeep. (fn. 32)
The council's unsystematic approach to public health policy and its implementation was exemplified by the establishment of no fewer than five separate committees dealing with interconnected aspects between 1848 and 1852. (fn. 33) Only when the Public Health Act of 1872 made Chester an urban sanitary authority and required it to appoint a medical officer of health was a wider-ranging unitary public health committee formed. (fn. 34) The first medical officer of health, appointed in 1873, also acted for adjoining districts in west Cheshire. (fn. 35)
The council was more successful in its reluctance to spend public money on education. The extra school places required after the 1870 Education Act were provided by voluntary efforts rather than through a school board. After 1877, conforming with national legislation, it appointed a school attendance officer and committee. (fn. 36) A minor educational initiative was to acquire the Mechanics' Institution library and museum in 1875-6; (fn. 37) Chester thus adopted the Free Libraries Acts well ahead of many towns of similar size and character. (fn. 38)
The Chester union became a regular poor-law union in 1869 and was enlarged by the addition of 43 rural townships in 1871. (fn. 39) The guardians built a new workhouse in Hoole Lane in 1877-8 to accommodate the larger numbers, (fn. 40) and the old workhouse on the Roodee then reverted to the corporation, which rented it for commercial use, latterly as a jam factory, before selling it in 1900. (fn. 41) The city was made into a single civil parish in 1885 so that poor rates could be equalized between the parishes and to save on the costs of collection. (fn. 42)
The Chester Improvement Act of 1884 marked a further increase in the council's powers, (fn. 43) notably in its capacity to borrow £15,000 towards buying out the bridge commissioners' interest in the Dee and Grosvenor Bridges and abolishing the tolls, and £35,000 for future street improvements. For the first time it was able to issue stock as well as raise mortgages against its rate income. (fn. 44) Otherwise the new powers were mainly regulatory: for acquiring closed burial grounds, controlling infectious diseases, and passing bylaws to limit advertising hoardings, for example. It was also permitted to enforce more stringent building regulations, lease the Roodee for public entertainments, and control pleasure boating on the river as far upstream as Aldford, well beyond the city boundary. (fn. 45)
Chester became a county borough in 1889. (fn. 46) Its boundaries were those delimited in 1835, and apart from minor adjustments in 1898 remained the same until the 1930s, (fn. 47) leaving the city on the eve of the First World War as the second smallest county borough in England and Wales (after Canterbury). (fn. 48) In 1898-9 the council applied in vain to extend its boundaries into both Cheshire and Flintshire, (fn. 49) and negotiations in 1905-6 about incorporating Hoole into the city also failed, ostensibly over the period during which Hoole's rates would be capped. (fn. 50) In 1914 the city thus excluded significant parts of the built-up area, notably the heavy industries in Saltney and the important residential suburb of Hoole. Saltney, which had a population of perhaps 2,000 in 1911, was merely a township and civil parish, (fn. 51) but Hoole acquired its own local board in 1864 under the provisions of the 1858 Local Government Act. The built-up part of the township became an urban sanitary district under the 1872 Public Health Act and an urban district in 1894; by 1914 it had a population of almost 6,000. (fn. 52) The local board's main activities were sewerage works in the 1860s, the organization of street lighting and cleansing, and building new offices for itself in Westminster Road in 1893. (fn. 53) The urban district council, which was divided into two wards each electing six councillors, (fn. 54) was initially preoccupied with laying out new residential streets, (fn. 55) but built a fire station for a volunteer brigade in 1898 (fn. 56) and opened a small public park in 1904. (fn. 57)
At the end of the 19th century Chester city council was still largely reactive, unwilling to commit itself to major new initiatives except when compelled by central government. For example, it acquired powers to supply electricity in 1890 largely to forestall private suppliers, then, like many other towns, delayed making use of them for years; (fn. 58) it opened a recreation ground in Handbridge in 1892 only when the duke of Westminster paid for it; (fn. 59) and it undertook a much needed reform of the race meeting in 1893 only to outflank those who wished to abolish it altogether. (fn. 60) After 1900, however, the council was more interventionist, partly because national legislation compelled it to be, but partly by choice. As a county borough, Chester became a local education authority in 1902, and educational provision immediately became its most onerous and expensive duty. (fn. 61) It spent heavily on a new public baths opened in 1901, (fn. 62) bought the horse-drawn tramway, electrified the system, and extended it between 1901 and 1906, (fn. 63) and opened discussions on taking over the privately funded Grosvenor Museum in 1904. (fn. 64) The council's most farsighted visions were often shaped in committee or by its salaried officers. As early as 1905, for example, the tramways committee wanted to start a motor-bus service which would have been one of the earliest municipal services in the country, though the full council vetoed the idea; (fn. 65) while in Sydney Britton, appointed in 1904, the council took into its service one of the most innovative municipal electrical engineers of his generation. Among his early projects was the hydroelectric power station opened at the Dee Bridge in 1913 on the site of the Dee Mills which the council had earlier bought and demolished. (fn. 66)
The council also began cautiously providing public housing at a time when few towns of similar size and status were doing so. It set up a housing committee in 1899 and used the legislation of 1890-1900 to build 12 cottages at Tower Road near the canal basin in 1904. Plans for 28 more were first approved in 1906 but delayed by the First World War. (fn. 67) Smallholdings were laid out at Lache in 1911-13 under the 1908 Act. (fn. 68)
The growing complexity of local government was recognized in 1902 when the council reorganized its committee structure, set out the duties of its chief officers, and determined on a fuller record of its business. (fn. 69) The council and committee minutes had been printed since 1896 and were henceforth indexed too. (fn. 70) From 1903 the town clerk was a full-time salaried official. (fn. 71)
The council's increasing activity in the early 20th century was exemplified by its efforts to attract visitors. It had already acquired good and early public parks and recreation areas with a minimum of its own expenditure. (fn. 72) From small beginnings in 1900, by 1906 it was advertising widely and distributing 10,000 copies ofan annual illustrated handbook. (fn. 73) The work was thought sufficiently important by 1905 to justify a separate advertising committee, (fn. 74) which co-opted three representatives of the Chester Traders' Association. (fn. 75) Its budget was limited by the lack of powers to spend rate income on advertising, but the council set aside £100 a year from the issue of boating licences, and the Traders' Association contributed too. (fn. 76)
The council also showed itself increasingly responsive to local lobbying for often quite minor improvements to the city centre, above all in matters where the impression made on visitors was either a real issue or could be invoked. Thus in 1902 it referred unauthorized city guides to the chief constable on the grounds that they were a nuisance to visitors, and in 1904 provided waste baskets in Grosvenor Park and the Groves, in both cases following up requests from residents. (fn. 77) At around the same time, and for similar motives, it concerned itself with the location of urinals and the discouragement of spitting. (fn. 78)
By 1914 local government in Chester was thus far more complex and wide-ranging than it had been in 1835. The council's committee structure had burgeoned with its responsibilities, (fn. 79) and its paid staff had grown in numbers, the salary bill for the core staff rising from under £700 a year in the 1850s to c. £2,500 in 1914. (fn. 80) Because Chester was so small a town, however, the scale of local government was rather limited. In 1906 the city employed only 630 people, the fourth lowest total of all the county boroughs, of whom a mere 59 were clerical staff. Per head of population its workforce was commensurate with those of several other resorts and small county towns. (fn. 81) Although small, the council embraced modernity in office practice, buying its first typewriter apparently in 1903, and by 1905 installing typewriters and duplicating machines in its main departments. (fn. 82)
Until the 1860s the corporation's finances were relatively stable. (fn. 83) In the 1850s annual income was in the order of £10,000 to £12,000, of which about £1,500 came from rents, £1,200 from market tolls, £2,000- £3,500 from the borough rate, between £1,500 and £3,250 from the watch rate, and smaller sums from a great variety of other sources. The largest fixed items of expenditure were the police force (up to £2,000 a year), the city gaol (usually about £1,600), and servicing the council's debt (normally about £1,100). They remained the largest recurrent annual costs until the 1870s. From 1853 to 1872, for instance, the gaol always cost over £1,300 a year, occasionally over £2,000, towards which only a few hundred pounds a year was ever recovered from the sale of prisoners' labour in oakum-picking and stone-breaking.
Capital projects which required borrowing were few before the 1860s. Apart from the £10,000 borrowed under the 1845 Improvement Act, (fn. 84) the only sums raised were £900 in 1852 to buy the baths, £2,446 in 1853 to extend the cattle market, and £800 in 1856 for repairs to the Exchange. From the 1860s, however, ever-larger sums were borrowed for capital works. The biggest items were £11,000 in 1863 for a new market hall, £35,000 in 1867 and 1870 for a new town hall after the Exchange was destroyed by fire (the balance of the cost coming from insurance), and £50,000 over the period 1873-9 for sewerage works. Even the smaller amounts spent on buying up property for extending the markets were large by earlier standards, so that by the time of the 1884 Improvement Act the council had raised a little over £120,000 in loans. (fn. 85) Of £101,000 outstanding in 1878-9, the main source was public works loans, accounting for 46 per cent; private individuals had advanced 30 per cent, the governors of the Chester infirmary 11 per cent, and the trustees of the Owen Jones charity 10 per cent. (fn. 86) The Act itself sanctioned loans of a further £50,000, (fn. 87) and allowed the corporation to create £150,000 of 3½ per cent stock, mostly redeemable in 40 years; by 1891-2 over £136,000 of stock had been issued. (fn. 88)
The total borrowed over the period 1884-1914 was over £½ million. By far the largest object of capital expenditure in that period was electricity generation and supply, for which £143,000 was borrowed between 1895 and 1913, together with the electric tramway system, which required another £82,000. (fn. 89) Street improvements took £64,000 and sewerage schemes £88,000, principally for the new sewage works in Sealand. £64,000 was spent on school buildings between 1902 and 1914, and other building works required about as much: £21,000 for the isolation hospital, £19,000 for the swimming baths, £8,000 to buy and then replace the fire station, £13,000 on repairs and improvements to the town hall, and £5,000 on the market buildings.
Revenue expenditure continued to rise throughout the period from the 1860s, not least as the council took on a greater range of tasks. Almost every service that it already provided in the 1850s cost far more by 1914. Taking 1853-4 as a base, street repairs and related works, for example, cost three times as much, the police force four and a half times, street lighting almost six times, and the fire brigade over eight times, all during a period free of price inflation. The services newly provided by the corporation - whether voluntarily or imposed by central government - inevitably added further to its expenditure, and on an increasing scale. The new public markets, for example, cost on average £662 a year to run before they were enlarged in 1882, and £1,062 afterwards. Average annual expenditure on the parks was £325 before the 1890s and £582 after 1900; on the swimming baths under £150 before the new baths were opened in 1901 but over ten times as much later. The public health committee was spending c. £700 a year between 1884 and 1892 but c. £1,400 between 1892 and 1914, while the annual running costs of the sewage works grew from £1,400 to £5,200 after they were enlarged in 1900-5. Even one-off costs were higher: the 1884 Improvement Act cost the corporation under £1,200, the 1896 Chester Corporation Act over £7,600. At the same time the rising tide of capital expenditure added inexorably to the cost of servicing the council's debt, from under £2,000 in a typical year before 1866 to over £7,000 c. 1900.
After c. 1900 the council's expenditure was growing even more sharply. The isolation hospital opened in 1898, for instance, incurred a net average running cost (after taking into account charges for patients from other local authorities) of £1,889 between 1900 and 1914. By far the largest new item, however, was the cost of schools after 1902. By the earlier 1910s the council was spending on average £13,838 a year, representing in 1913-14 some 46 per cent of a total education budget of £30,000, the balance coming from Board of Education grants and other outside sources.
The council's income other than the rates was inelastic. Traditional sources carried over from before 1835 were far outstripped by the rising cost of providing services. Rents from the corporation's land and houses in particular were scarcely higher in 1914 than they had been in the 1820s, while the public markets, profitable as they were, brought in only three times the revenue of the 1850s on the eve of the First World War, and the Roodee generated only £2,000 a year by 1914, though that was almost ten times what it had made in the 1850s.
Ratepayers bore the brunt of the increase in council expenditure. In cash terms the main borough rate produced c. £2,000 in 1853-4 but almost £38,000 in 1913-14; as a proportion of expenditure from the main account it needed to cover only about a third in the 1850s and 1860s, 60 per cent from the 1870s to the 1890s, and almost three quarters by 1914. The total sum raised from all the rates was stable in the range £21,000-£23,000 a year in the period 1878-92, then jumped by stages to twice that level in 1903-7. From 1908 it was rising year on year and had reached £57,000 by 1914. Ratepayers were normally required to pay between 2s. 9d. and 3s. 4d. in the pound between the 1870s and 1897 but thereafter saw a huge increase which took the rate over 4s. every year after 1902 and to almost 6s. by 1914. The rate was made up of four components, of which the three smaller parts other than the borough rate were a watch rate for the police force (3d. in the pound 1876-1904, then 4d.), a lamp rate for lighting and cleansing the streets and for the fire brigade (always the maximum permissible of 6d. in the pound except for 1884), and from 1876 a library rate of 1d. in the pound.
The corporation's two large new enterprises, electricity and tramways, were both remunerative. The revenue accounts of the electricity department showed a surplus over the period 1896-1914 of £155,000. Although most of it had to be spent on servicing the debt incurred in setting up the business, £23,000 was available for sinking and reserve funds, £10,000 for new capital expenditure, £8,000 for repairs, and £7,000 to subsidize the rates. (fn. 90) The tramways, which began working in 1903, were less profitable, but of a total working surplus before 1914 of £49,000, £7,000 remained as the net balance after paying interest and creating a sinking fund. (fn. 91) Those sums went only a little way towards offsetting the council's expenditure in other areas, and in 1907-8, for example, neither business produced as big a surplus as the markets. (fn. 92) The total subsidy to the rates from Chester's municipal trading was nevertheless as much as 5¼d. in the pound in 1908-9, about the middle of the range for those towns where a profit was made, when many others were losing money on similar enterprises. (fn. 93)