A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1957.
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COUNTY GOVERNMENT SINCE 1835. Part One, 1835–1888
Government of Quarter Sessions, p. 232–(i) Finances of the County, p. 234, (ii) Major Functions of the County, p. 238. The New Structure, p. 251. The Problem of County Government 1880–9, p. 261. The County Council 1888–1929, p. 264–(i) The Standing Joint Committee, p. 268, (ii) Finance, p. 269, (iii) Principal Functions of the County Council, p. 272. Developments in County Government since 1929, p. 282–(i) Local Government Act 1929, p. 282, (ii) Gains and Losses since 1929, p. 287.
The Poor Law Act of 1834 was the first step in an administrative revolution which was not completed till 60 years later. (fn. 1) It transferred control of the largest and most important branch of local government from the justices to an elected body of ratepayers' representatives. Upon the historic ground-plan of the old county areas it superimposed the new pattern of the poor law unions, and set up in the localities an administrative machine, worked by paid officials, and responsive to the will of a powerful central department expressed through an expert inspectorate and a code of uniform regulations. It subjected the traditional areas and authorities of English local government to the utilitarian tests of appropriateness for function, economy in operation, and uniformity of structure—demanding, as its principal author put it, that 'the same thing should always be done the same way throughout the country, the best being carefully selected'. (fn. 2) The process so begun in 1834 might have led to an early and complete reconstruction of county administration. 'County councils' might have been created of the type proposed by the Royal Commission on County Rates in 1836, on which representatives from the boards of guardians sat with a limited number of the justices. (fn. 3) An even more radical course might have been followed, and, on the twin assumptions that the county boundaries 'have long ceased to have reference to any object of public utility which they might possibly have had anciently', and that 'the new unions are the most efficient bodies for the chief objects of local administration', (fn. 4) a fundamental revision of areas and functions undertaken.
Any such schemes, however, were defeated by the stubborn strength of the county organization. The county boundary stood firm, and for another half-century county business and the county fund continued in the hands of quarter sessions. But in order to survive the justices had to adapt themselves to the changed environment, and take note of the criticisms levelled at them by parliamentary committees and royal commissions. Increasingly conscious that they were an aristocratic survival in a world where the representative principle was steadily on the advance, they sought by frugal management and wider publicity to earn the confidence and approbation of the ratepayers whose money they spent. Step by step they surrendered that freedom from central control which had been theirs for over 150 years; they yielded one field of their activity after another to the surveillance of the government departments, and derived a growing proportion of their revenue from the Treasury. Moreover, though they were still the 'county authority', important new bodies—town councils, poor law boards, local boards of health, school boards—developed an independent life outside their jurisdiction. A new structure, erected on different foundations, was rising beside the old, and by 1888 the problem of integrating the two would become acute.
Thus, the three principal themes of local government history in the 19th century— the reassertion of the central power, the spread of representative institutions, the creation of new authorities—all make their appearance in the opening years of our period, and the main interest of the first half-century lies in observing their impact upon the traditional framework of county, parish, and borough.
The government of Quarter Sessions
It is not with a decaying institution that we have to deal, but one still strong, respected, and clumsily effective for its purposes. In membership and social weight the Wiltshire quarter sessions continued to grow. The 203 justices who were qualified to act in March 1875 included 1 duke (Beaufort), 3 marquesses (Ailesbury, Bath, Lansdowne), 4 earls (Nelson, Normanton, Radnor, Suffolk), 4 barons (Arundell of Wardour, Heytesbury, Methuen, Rivers), 10 close relatives of peers, 13 baronets, 2 knights, 142 squires, and 24 clergymen. Seventeen of these were members of Parliament. (fn. 5) Nothing like this number, however, was present at quarter sessions, and the usual attendance was between twenty-five and thirty-five. The historic practice continued (fn. 6) of holding the sessions in the four towns of Marlborough, Devizes, Salisbury, and Warminster. The annual circuit had much to commend it as a judicial expedient, but the administrative difficulties it entailed as the machinery of county government developed in size and complexity gave rise to some criticism. A motion that it would 'conduce to the public convenience and facilitate the transaction of the Public Business of the County if the General and Quarter Sessions of the Peace were held at Devizes only instead of being as at present held at four different places within the same' was defeated in 1867 by 41 votes to 35. (fn. 7) In 1883 a motion by Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice that the Michaelmas sessions should in future be held at Devizes instead of Marlborough was met by an amendment 'that this question having been fully discussed before and decided on it is unwise to reopen it', which was carried by 37 to 18; and a similar motion that the Trinity sessions should be held at Salisbury instead of Warminster was thereupon withdrawn. (fn. 8) It appears from this that the more progressive members were pressing to concentrate business at two centres, Devizes and Salisbury, for the north and south respectively.
Immediately on assembly quarter sessions divided itself, setting up a second court of from three to ten justices to sit apart and hear a proportion of the criminal cases. (fn. 9) From these two circumstances—the geographical fragmentation of the sessions and the division into two courts—it resulted that the chairmanship was not a single, but a multiple or collegiate, office. Devizes and Marlborough shared the same chairman; Salisbury invariably had a different chairman, while Warminster at times came under the northern chairman, at other times under the southern. William Heald Ludlow Bruges, for example, was chairman at Devizes and Marlborough from 1837 to 1847, and Henry Alworth Merewether, junior, from 1866 to 1875; George Matcham was chairman at Salisbury from 1836 to 1869, and Lord Radnor from 1870 to 1875; while for one spell of about twenty years, 1846–1866, three of the centres, Devizes, Marlborough, and Warminster, came under the chairmanship of Sir John Wither Awdry. When a chairman retired or died his place was filled by the promotion of the 'second chairman'; thus, Ralph Ludlow Lopes served from 1866 to 1874 as chairman of the second court at Devizes and Marlborough before being promoted to the chairmanship of the same sessions (1875–84). (fn. 10)
To support the increasing burden of quarter sessions' duties the simple administrative structure, whose foundations are described in the previous chapter, was greatly expanded and developed. As standing committees the justices possessed in 1835 only the finance committee and the visiting committees appointed annually for the prisons and private lunatic asylums. Half a dozen others were added at various dates: constabulary (1839), visitors to the county asylum (1849), county rate (1870), licensing (1872), county bridges and highways (1876), boundary (1883), a joint committee with Somerset, Gloucester, Devon, Dorset, and the city of Bristol for the River Avon fishery district (1866). (fn. 11) Ad hoc committees were frequently set up to deal with special questions as they arose: committees of inquiry to view a bridge or investigate the working of the turnpike trusts, exploratory committees to consider means of assimilating the management of the county prisons or the expediency of applying the Highways Act of 1862 to the county, executive committees to build the county lunatic asylum or the militia stores. (fn. 12) The organization of petty sessions was also improved to cope with the enlargement of the justices' summary jurisdiction, which resulted from the protective and regulative legislation of the century, and in particular from the developing code of public health law. The establishment of the county constabulary was followed by the erection of station houses to which were attached court-rooms for the use of the local justices; 'there are only four places in the county', commented the Home Office inspector in 1861, 'in which petty sessions are now held in public houses'. (fn. 13) A further step towards a simpler, speedier, and less costly administration of justice was taken in 1847, when the county was divided into twelve districts in each of which a county court, presided over by a visiting judge, sat at least once a month to hear cases involving the recovery of small debts or damages (up to the amount of £20). (fn. 14)
Parallel with these developments there came an expansion in the number of the county's paid servants. A chief constable and a police force of 200 were appointed in 1839; four inspectors of weights and measures were employed for a few years (1835–45), until their duties were transferred to the police; with the opening of the county lunatic asylum a medical superintendent was appointed in 1851; a county analyst was engaged in 1878–after quarter sessions had disputed the need for such an officer and the Home Office had insisted on immediate compliance with the terms of the Food and Drugs Act. (fn. 15) The ancient office of coroner underwent a belated reform. In 1835 Wiltshire had two county coroners, both of whom lived in the northern division, at Bradford and Devizes, so that the more remote districts of the south and south-west found themselves 30 miles or more from the nearest coroner; (fn. 16) moreover, they were paid by fees, and the finance committee frequently had reason to believe that their bills had been inflated by dubious claims. (fn. 17) It was not till 1859, however, that a third coroner was appointed, and the county divided into three districts, north, middle, and south Wiltshire; while at the same time the coroners' fees were replaced by salaries fixed by the Home Secretary. (fn. 18) The departments of clerk of the peace, treasurer, and surveyor dated from the 18th century. The two latter were paid by salary; but John Swayne, clerk of the peace until 1864, retained his private practice and was paid by bill and fees; his successor, William Clark Merriman, however, received a fixed salary of £1,050. (fn. 19) These three officers, together with the staffs of the gaols and the justices' clerks (who were granted salaries in 1878), (fn. 20) complete the roll of paid servants of the county. As the century advanced salaried officials in the service of county, union, highway district, or local board of health took over the duties of the unpaid and too often incapable amateurs hitherto selected to serve in parish or hundred. Thus, for example, the high constables of the hundreds were deprived of their principal remaining function, the collection of the county rate, in 1844; (fn. 21) with the introduction of the police force the office lost whatever raison d'être it still possessed, and in 1869, on the passing of the High Constables Act, quarter sessions resolved that it was no longer necessary in any hundred within their jurisdiction. (fn. 22)
In the figures for the county expenditure can be read the story of quarter sessions' changing and expanding functions. Of the total of £13,112 in 1832, £5,878 (45 per cent.) were spent in one way or another on the gaols and houses of correction, this figure including £1,007 for repairing and enlarging the buildings, £2,980 for prisoners' maintenance, and £1,891 for the salaries of governors and staffs. The next largest item was the cost of prosecutions at assizes and quarter sessions, £2,260, just over 17 per cent. The passing of vagrants accounted for £1,400 (11 per cent.), the conveyance of prisoners to gaol or port of embarkation £915 (7 per cent.), the repair of the county bridges £453 (3½ per cent.). The remuneration by salary or fees of the clerk of assize (£196), clerk of the peace (£449), treasurer (£150), surveyor (£260), and coroners (£267) totalled £1,321, or 10 per cent. (fn. 23)
Under all these heads there had been an enormous increase in the last 40 years. In the ten years 1795 to 1804 quarter sessions spent £36,846; from 1825 to 1834 the figure was £154,588, a rise of 320 per cent. Between 1795 and 1804 the maintenance of prisoners cost £7,308, between 1825 and 1834 £58,188, an increase of nearly 700 per cent., to be explained not only by the bigger gaol population but also by the annual bill for the salaries now paid to the prison staffs. The figures for prosecution costs showed an even more remarkable rise of over 1,900 per cent., from £1,247 in 1794–1804 to £23,341 in 1825–1834; this was the result of a series of Acts which had thrown an increasing proportion of the expenses of witnesses and prosecutors on to the county rates. (fn. 24) The repair of bridges cost no more than £1,190 for the ten years 1795–1804; for 1825–34 it amounted to £9,584, an increase of over 700 per cent. Of the latter figure the surveyor's salary of £260 a year formed a considerable proportion. As for the other officers, no payment at all is set down for the clerk of the peace in 1792, the fees of the clerk of assize were then only 16 guineas, while the treasurer received no more than £20 and the coroners £139. (fn. 25)
Table 1: County Income and Expenditure, 1792–1839 (fn. 26)
|1792–9 (fn. 217)||1800–9||1810–19||1820–9||1830–9|
|Constables and Vagrants||1,168||1,643||4,357||7,792||8,277|
Table 2: County Expenditure, 1840–89 (fn. 27)
Thus, as communications improved, as gaols were built and enlarged and their management became more expensive, as the costs of prosecution swelled, and as new responsibilities such as the police and the lunatic asylum were entrusted to the county authorities, the pressure on the county rates grew from year to year. To the country gentlemen in quarter sessions and Parliament it seemed a twofold cause for grievance, first that 'national' services, such as the prosecution and transport of criminals, should be borne on local funds, and secondly that the burden should fall almost entirely on real property though personalty equally benefited. Some relief came in 1835 when the Government provided a grant of £80,000 to defray half the cost of prosecutions and another £30,000 for the conveyance of transports; for Wiltshire this meant assistance to the extent of about 12 per cent. of the annual expenditure. From this date Treasury grants played a great and growing part in county finance. In 1846 the Government undertook to pay the whole cost of prosecutions; by the Police Act of 1856 one-fourth of the expense of clothing and paying the police was similarly provided from national funds, and in 1874 this proportion was raised to one-half; further grants were made for the execution of the Cattle Diseases Prevention Act, the maintenance of lunatic paupers, and the upkeep of main roads. A half-century of financial history may be conveniently summarized in a table:
Table 3: County Income, 1840–89 (fn. 28)
Few counties in 1835 assessed their rates on a valuation of recent date, and the long continued neglect to make 'a fair and equal County Rate' was a measure of the financial ineptitude of most county authorities and a source of reasonable complaint by the ratepayers. (fn. 29) Wiltshire was better than some other counties in this respect, but no better than most, the assessment in force being based upon the returns of the Property Tax in 1818. In 1840, probably as a delayed reaction to the promptings of the inquiries of 1834 and 1836, quarter sessions appointed a committee to make a new assessment. An examination of the parochial assessment in two-thirds of the Wiltshire parishes revealed very great discrepancies between the valuations of property for the county rate and the parochial rate. In only nine parishes were the two valuations within £50 of the same figure; in the remainder the assessment on which the county rate was based was several hundreds or even several thousands of pounds above or below the parochial figure, which the committee considered likely to be nearer the true value. (fn. 30) A revision of the basis of the county rate was ordered by the court at the Trinity sessions of 1840; this raised the assessment by about 2 per cent. from £1,115,458 to £1,138,486, a farthing rate bringing in £1,186. It was 30 years before another revision was undertaken. How far the old valuation had ceased to reflect the growing wealth of the county was shown by the assessment for 1872, which stood at £1,542,166, 35 per cent. higher than the figure for 1840, a farthing rate now producing £1,606. A permanent county rate committee was set up in 1870, and henceforth the valuation was brought under regular review at frequent intervals.
The county debt, established in the 18th century, mounted steadily in the first half of the 19th century, as money was found for modernizing the gaols or carrying out new projects such as the erection of the lunatic asylum, the militia storehouse, and police stations and lock-ups. It reached its peak in 1856, when the figure for loans outstanding was £54,285. In the next fifteen years, 1857–71, the debt was gradually brought down by a policy of annual repayment of principal. In 1872 it stood at £39,065; by 1882 it had been lowered to £18,705; in 1889 when quarter sessions handed over to the county council it was only £10,690. (fn. 31) A policy of debt redemption, pursued steadily and inflexibly over a whole generation, had cut the burden of the county debt to less than one-fifth; and if administration were to be judged solely by the criteria of economy and retrenchment, the Wiltshire justices would appear to have had much to congratulate themselves upon.
In appointing a finance committee, a practice begun in 1824, Wiltshire was in advance of most counties. (fn. 32) It consisted at first of only three or four justices, but in 1856, after complaints that its numbers were too small to ensure a quorum, it was enlarged to seven, two of whom were to retire annually. (fn. 33) By 1865 the committee had been further strengthened, and was now composed of the chairmen and vice-chairmen of the several courts with nine other justices. (fn. 34) They met on the Saturday before the sessions to examine the quarterly accounts, and on their report the court when it assembled passed the orders on the treasurer authorizing him to pay the salaries, pensions, and bills. In their minutes they may be seen scrutinizing the accounts of the coroners, paying particular attention to those of Mr. Sylvester; (fn. 35) certifying the figures for the costs of prosecution and the conveyance of transports, so that the county might claim its grant from the Treasury; questioning whether there were any reason why the charges for the maintenance of pauper lunatics in the private asylums should vary from 8s. to 9s. a week; (fn. 36) comparing the costs of management of the county prisons, remarking, for example, that 'in the accounts of the Governor of the County Gaol we observe a charge of £2 for privately whipping four Prisoners, the allowance for this duty is 2s. 6d. at the House of Correction; we think the remuneration should be the same in both Prisons'. (fn. 37)
The control and surveillance of the finance committee, it should be noted, operated within a very restricted sphere. Something like 50 per cent. of the county expenditure lay entirely outside its jurisdiction, since two great items, the police and the asylum, were managed separately, each under its special committee which presented its accounts to the court. The function of the finance committee, therefore, was limited to examining the accounts of the gaols, the clerk of the peace, the surveyor, the coroners, and the incidental expenses, and to ensuring that every halfpenny of expenditure and income within this assigned field was properly recorded in the journal and cash-book. There was no provision, of course, for an independent audit; and for twenty years after 1835 the ratepayers had no more information about the county finances than was afforded by the quarterly abstract of accounts and the annual balance sheet published by the justices. Criticism came to a head in 1856, when it was complained that since the finance committee conducted its examination of the accounts on the Saturday before the opening of the sessions on Tuesday insufficient time was allowed for correspondence about any objectionable item. 'In many counties', observed the committee in its defence, 'the business of the Finance Committee is transacted during the time of the Sessions—in others on the Monday previous—in this County a greater interest in public matters seems to have called the Finance Committee together at an earlier date than is usual.' But there was a recognition that the committee needed to be strengthened, and an uneasy awareness that the inquisitive ratepayers would have to be placated. This incident had two main results: an enlargement of the size of the committee to seven, as noted above; and an order providing for the publication of a more detailed statement of the accounts in the form of a printed pamphlet, copies of which were sent to each magistrate and board of guardians, and were on sale to the public. 'By this means we consider that all requisite Publicity will be attained and every information given that can be required either by the Magistracy or by the Rate payers.' (fn. 38)
The prisons, which until the establishment of the police force in 1839 formed the largest item of country expenditure, were the first branch of the justices' administration to come under the inspection of the central Government. After 1835, under the provisions of the Act 'for effecting greater uniformity of practice in the government of the several prisons in England and Wales', (fn. 39) a Home Office inspector paid regular visits to the Wiltshire gaols. The authority of quarter sessions over its prisons remained virtually unimpaired, however, for the next 30 years, and the practice continued of appointing annually a small committee of visiting justices to scrutinize expenditure and supervise the management and discipline. At every quarter sessions the governors attended to present for the signature of the chairman their journals and registers of punishments, the record of the number and description of the prisoners, the certificate of observance of the rules, the report of the visiting justices, and the journals of the chaplain and surgeon; and once a year, at Michaelmas, the clerk of the peace laid before the court a summary of the reports of the governors, surgeons, and chaplains. At the same time the prisons now came under the eye of the Home Office inspector, who could measure local conditions by the standard of general achievement over a wider area, and who brought the pressure of his authority and experience to bear in support of a centrally conceived policy. The separate system, as a cure for the old evils of unrestrained association; a diet nicely calculated to be just sufficient to maintain health and strength; useful, in preference to merely penal, labour—these were the main principles of the uniform policy which the inspector pressed upon the justices and governors. He could not order, for while the justices must obtain Home Office sanction for any rule they made, they could not be required to adopt any new rule drawn by the central department; but he could at least criticize, advise, persuade—and publicize, in the annual reports which were circulated by the Home Office.
In 1835 Wiltshire had four prisons: the old bridewell at Devizes; the Marlborough bridewell; the house of correction, or 'New Prison' as quarter sessions formally named it in 1836, (fn. 40) opened at Devizes in 1810; and the county gaol at Fisherton Anger rebuilt between 1818 and 1822. (fn. 41) The Devizes bridewell was closed in May 1836, and as its epitaph we have the remark of a prison chaplain that 'the Discipline of that Prison is extremely bad'; (fn. 42) but the Marlborough bridewell was retained another eighteen years under steady fire from the inspector and a section of the justices. It must be either discontinued or repaired, urged the finance committee in 1835; it was reckoned so unsafe that the 112 rioters imprisoned there in the disturbed times of 1830 were removed at night without delay to Devizes. (fn. 43) In normal times its fifteen cells accommodated an average of between 30 and 40 prisoners, who were unprovided with bedsteads and slept on the wooden floor. The keeper's wife was his only assistant, 'nor has he even a single rule for his guidance'. (fn. 44) To maintain a regime of silence was naturally impossible in such conditions; nor was any work found for the prisoners apart from the usual gaol chores of cleaning, whitewashing and mending—the prisoners, in fact, were said to prefer the harshness of Devizes where at any rate some occupation was provided for them. (fn. 45) Yet, on the whole, the inspector thought the bridewell 'neat, clean, and orderly' (fn. 46) and 'remarkably healthy'; (fn. 47) he commended the zeal and intelligence of the keeper, and considered it praiseworthy that in such circumstances he allowed so few of his charges to escape; and the total cost of running the gaol–£280 16s. 1¼d. in 1835, including £140 for the salaries of keeper, chaplain and surgeon—was without question 'extremely moderate'. (fn. 48) Under pressure from the inspector some improvements were introduced. The keeper's meagre salary was raised, his wife was recognized and paid as the matron, a turnkey was appointed; and it was suggested that 'a few old chains should be put up around the outside of the doors, in order to afford somewhat the appearance of a prison. The building is too much like a common dwelling-house at present'. (fn. 49) But in 1853 the inspector condemned its 'utter inefficiency ... as a penal establishment'; (fn. 50) and the following year quarter sessions at last resolved to discontinue it and hand the building over to the constabulary for use as a police station. (fn. 51) The keeper, Alfred Alexander, appears to have well earned his promotion to the governorship of the New Prison.
The New Prison at Devizes was a much larger establishment of 210 cells, with a staff of ten, (fn. 52) while the county gaol at Fisherton Anger was about half this size, with 96 separate sleeping cells and a staff of eight. (fn. 53) In discipline and management the two institutions afforded a remarkable contrast in 1835. In the county gaol there was no solitary confinement, no treadwheel, no punishment if one prisoner spoke to another; the prisoners enjoyed 'what Food they can procure from their Friends', exercise 'from the Time of being unlocked in the Morning till a Quarter before Sunset in the Evening, daily', and visits 'as often as they can get an Order from a Magistrate, not exceeding Three Times a Week'. (fn. 54) At Devizes, where discipline had been very much tightened up in recent years, the rules were strict: silence, and a ban on communication so rigorous that the chaplain repeated his week-day prayers five times in separate wards to avoid the risk of one prisoner whispering to another in a general assembly; solitary confinement for all physically incapable of work; a treadwheel on which each prisoner was screened from his neighbours by partitions, penalties being imposed on the man who turned his head or looked over his shoulder; for the refractory, dark cells, a lowered diet, and removal of the bed ('a general Rule which has grown up with the various Improvements which have taken place'); and in the diet 'not a particle' of meat to healthy prisoners. (fn. 55)
The differences in regimen which we observe in 1835 probably have their origin in the historic distinction between gaol and house of correction. That distinction, which was not clearly defined even then (a portion of the county gaol at Fisherton was used as a house of correction), was gradually abandoned in the following years. Of necessity prisoners sentenced to hard labour and solitary confinement were sent to Devizes, the county gaol at Fisherton in structure and equipment being unfitted for these purposes. But quarter sessions made intermittent efforts to develop the facilities for penal labour at Fisherton; both institutions were used to hold prisoners before trial, debtors, and convicts sentenced to short or long terms; (fn. 56) and eventually in 1859 they were put on a common footing, both being styled gaol (or prison) and house of correction. (fn. 57) Throughout, however, the slackness of Fisherton Anger stood in strong contrast to the hard efficiency of Devizes, and it is difficult to conceive that the two prisons were being administered by a common authority. The explanation lies partly in the character and qualities of the governors, partly in the weakness of the administrative arrangement by which each prison came under the supervision of a separate committee of justices, with no adequate provision for co-ordinating principles and policies. A belated recognition of this fact—which showed a measurable effect in the average daily cost per head of the gaol inmates, in 1839 Is. 8½d. at Fisherton Anger, 11½d. at Devizes, and 9d. at Marlborough—led to the appointment in 1851 of a prison assimilation committee charged 'to take Measures for carrying into Effect the resolutions agreed to by the Court that the prisons be put as nearly as possible upon the same Treatment Discipline Diet & Cost of Management'. (fn. 58) Its report, however, made no serious attempt to grapple with the problem, and its main recommendation, the introduction of a uniform dietary scale, precipitated a conflict with the Home Office which will be described below.
Despite the fitful concern of quarter sessions and the more active determination of the inspector, Fisherton Anger and Devizes retained their individual characteristics till 1865. 'The labour here is a mere trifle', reported the inspector after visiting Fisherton in 1842; it is 'little more than nominal', he reported more than twenty years later in 1864. (fn. 59) A capstan, which raised water for the prison reservoir, found three hours' work a day for four men; for many years there was practically no other task to which the prisoners could be set; they constantly complained of lack of occupation, and in their boredom asked the governor to allow them a turn at the capstan. (fn. 60) Later a crank-mill for grinding corn was introduced, but although the work went on throughout the day it employed no more than twenty men; and 'oakum picking, which is so useful in employing prisoners elsewhere, is not practised'. (fn. 61) At Devizes, on the other hand, a treadwheel kept 60 prisoners busy, and a crank-mill 32 more. Hours of labour in 1837 averaged 9½ in the summer, and at no period of the year were fewer than 6¾ (fn. 62). Each prisoner on the treadwheel, it was calculated in 1843, did the equivalent of a daily climb of 12,648 ft. in 7¾ hours—a figure surpassed by only three other gaols in the country, the Bristol common gaol, the Oxford city gaol, and the Grantham borough gaol. (fn. 63) Nor was this the only point of contrast. From first to last there was no schoolmaster at the county gaol, the only instruction being given by the chaplain, using the Bible as his sole textbook. (fn. 64) At Devizes a schoolmaster was employed from 1842, and prisoners spent about three hours a week in school, learning the elements of reading and the Church catechism. (fn. 65) It is, again, very noticeable that at Fisherton Anger the inspector's advice as often as not fell on stony ground, while at Devizes (at any rate after 1853, when Alexander became keeper) it was acted upon immediately. In his report on the county gaol for 1860, for example, the inspector observes that only one of the improvements he had recommended on his previous visit in 1858–a better diet—had been introduced by the justices; there was still no schoolmaster (a criticism first made twenty years before); the debtors' sitting-rooms still lacked gas-light, which meant, as he had explained two years earlier, that in winter they sometimes spent fourteen or sixteen hours a day in darkness; and the only means of washing continued to be at open sinks in the middle of the airing yards. (fn. 66) The report on the New Prison for the same year, however, commends the 'zeal, intelligence, and humanity of the governor', and remarks that most of the suggestions made during the previous visit had been acted upon. (fn. 67)
Slowly as the years passed the inspector coaxed the justices along the path pointed out for them by the Home Office. Some of the old cruelties and abuses were stamped out, such as the illegal charge levied for bedding in the county gaol. (fn. 68) Staffs were strengthened, given higher wages, and put into uniform. Even the dietary scales were improved, though this required a long and stubborn battle. In 1847 the Home Office asked quarter sessions to review the dietaries then in use (the insufficiency of which had been frequently represented by the inspector), and frame them on a scale graduated according to the Home Office regulations; this meant the adoption of dietaries increasing in richness according to the length of sentence, a man imprisoned for three days getting 1 pound of bread and 2 pints of gruel a day, while after 3 months a prisoner would receive meat and vegetables every day, with cocoa and sugar for breakfast. Strong objection to this proposal was raised by the visiting justices to the New Prison. Such a scale must have been laid down for medical reasons alone; it would lead to the obvious anomaly that a prisoner under heavy sentence and guilty of serious crime would find himself in a more enviable position than a less hardened offender. Moreover, the Home Office dietary 'is far above the ordinary Scale of living not only of the labouring and operative Classes in this County but also of many small Occupiers of land and Tradesmen who are earning their livelihood by honest and patient industry and who would be themselves contributing through the County Rates to maintain Felons at a higher standard than they can attain'. (fn. 69) Eventually, after long correspondence with the central department, the justices agreed to the adoption of an improved scale. (fn. 70) But the matter did not end there. In 1858 the inspector again found reason to condemn the dietaries in use, whose deficiency was shown by the fact that nearly all the prisoners lost weight; and 'as agricultural labourers are seldom overburthened with fat, the loss of several pounds during their short stay in the prison must lead to the inference that their strength must have been impaired'. (fn. 71) At Devizes there was an immediate improvement; but at the county gaol in 1860 the inspector was shocked to find a printed table headed 'Secretary of State's Official Dietaries', though the contents differed widely in principle and detail from the official recommendations. This revelation proved too much for the justices, and they agreed once more to adopt a new formula certified by the Home Office. (fn. 72)
A great change becomes noticeable after the passing of the Prisons Act of 1865. (fn. 73) Hitherto in his struggle with the justices the inspector had been obliged to rely on the uncertain weapons of persuasion and publicity, backed by the imponderable authority of a secretary of state. By the new Act the control of the central department was strengthened; local variations in diet, treatment, and discipline were to be eliminated, and the 193 local prisons brought under a uniform regimen prescribed by the Home Office. At Fisherton the staff was increased; the cells were heated, and two-thirds of them lighted with gas; and the prisoners were set to productive work, including shoemaking, tailoring, gardening, knitting and shirt making, besides oakum picking and the crank-mill. (fn. 74) At Devizes a system of labour was introduced analogous to that which operated at Winchester, under which marks were awarded to prisoners for their industry, so that as their sentences proceeded and their marks accumulated, the number of hours they spent on the treadwheel was reduced and their indulgences—books, schooling, letter-writing—correspondingly increased. (fn. 75) One immediate result of the Act in Wiltshire was the decision to close down the county gaol and enlarge the New Prison. The proposal was resisted by the town council of Salisbury and by a strong party on the Bench, but eventually Fisherton Anger was closed on 1 February 1870, the building being handed over to the police as a temporary house of detention. (fn. 76)
Finally, Cross's Act of 1877 (fn. 77) vested the ownership of the remaining Wiltshire prison in the Home Secretary and its superintendence in a body of Prison Commissioners. In a memorial to the Home Secretary quarter sessions expressed 'entire approval of the principle of the said Bill'. (fn. 78) Without a struggle, with an undoubted sigh of relief, the court surrendered one of its most important functions to the encroaching hand of the central department. All that was now left of their old powers was the duty of appointing an annual committee of visiting justices for the prison at Devizes.
Outside the boroughs with their watch committees, the policing of Wiltshire until 1839 was still the duty of those ancient officials, far older than Parliament or quarter sessions, the parish or petty constables. Not all of them merited the strictures of Blackstone and the ridicule of the novelists and playwrights—one petty constable of Trowbridge, it is interesting to note, rose later to be an inspector in the county police (fn. 79)—but there seems no reason to suppose that the average Wiltshire constable was in any degree more efficient than his fellows throughout the country. At some places, Box, Devizes, Lacock, Ramsbury, Aldbourne, and Trowbridge, for example, private associations for the prosecution of felons had been formed. (fn. 80) Another product of a deficient police was the emergence of a class of informers, who earned a disreputable living from the fees gained by their activities; the dangers of this practice are illustrated in a letter from the clerk of the peace to the Home Office (29 July 1836), concerning John Thomas Green, his brother William, and Hannah Richards who 'have for some years carried on a system of prosecuting and giving Evidence against innocent Persons for pretended Robberies etc. for the Sake of the County Allowances to prosecutors and Witnesses'. (fn. 81) The unrest of the 1820's and 1830's, the agricultural riots and the later chartist disturbances, put an insupportable strain upon the parish constables, unpaid, untrained, and usually unwilling; and no doubt the Wiltshire justices had in mind such incidents as the attack on the Pythouse estate in 1830 and the chartist riot at Trowbridge in 1839 in which two hussars were wounded, (fn. 82) when at the Easter sessions of 1839 they resolved 'that it is the opinion of this Court that a Body of Constables appointed by the Magistrates paid out of the County rate and disposable at any point of the Shire where their Services might be required would be desirable as providing in the most efficient Manner for the prevention as well as detection of offences for the Security of person and property and for the constant preservation of the public peace'. (fn. 83)
The County Police Act of 1839 conferred the powers requested by the Wiltshire quarter sessions, and at Michaelmas Lord Radnor moved an important series of resolutions. The first, that the ordinary officers appointed were not sufficient for the preservation of the peace, the protection of the inhabitants or security of property, was carried by 35 votes to 3; the second, that a force of 200 paid constables was needed, received 40 votes, an amendment to reduce the figure to 123 being defeated by 34 votes to 3. (fn. 84) Wiltshire was one of the 31 counties which took advantage of this adoptive measure, and the size of force thus proposed was not far short of the maximum allowed by the Act (one constable to every thousand inhabitants). Despite the heavy additional burden on the rates, the Wiltshire justices were apparently never in doubt that they got good value for their money. A motion to reduce the force to 40 was decisively defeated in 1843, and another motion in 1852 to reduce it gradually to 180 was not even seconded. (fn. 85)
A chief constable, Captain Samuel Meredith, R.N., was appointed on 27 November 1839, and a police committee set up at the subsequent Hilary sessions. (fn. 86) As originally constituted the force consisted of the chief constable at a salary of £400, 13 superintendents at £75, 10 inspectors at £1 1s. a week, 25 Serjeants at 19s., and 152 constables at 17s. 6d. (fn. 87) The new force at once took over some of the functions formerly performed by the parish constables and other officers, and was soon given additional duties. Police superintendents and inspectors acted as inspectors of weights and measures, inspectors of nuisances, inspectors of lodging-houses, and assistant relieving officers; police constables escorted prisoners to gaol, kept order in the assize court 'in place of the usual Javelin Men', (fn. 88) and acted as 'impounders of stray animals at the request of the way wardens'. (fn. 89) There was a danger that the miscellaneous duties thrust upon them would cause their primary function to suffer. In 1862 4,484 casual vagrants were relieved by the Wiltshire police, by the issue of tickets qualifying them for a bed in a lodging-house or union workhouse; in 1868 the number reached 14,001, and in 1869 the peak figure of 18,421. (fn. 90) This practice, not of course peculiar to Wiltshire, was condemned by the Home Office inspector in his report for 1880; it must interfere, he observed, with the ordinary duties of police officers, since they must attend at the station to issue tickets to vagrants in the evening hours, a period when they were specially needed on patrol. (fn. 91) In 1874, after a directive from the Home Office, the police ceased to serve as inspectors of nuisances; (fn. 92) but their other duties, as inspectors of lodging-houses, assistant relieving officers, and inspectors under the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Act of 1869, went on, and were added to from time to time—in 1877, for example, they were employed as officers under the Explosives Act. (fn. 93)
It was the estimated cost of a paid constabulary which had deterred so many counties from establishing a force under the enabling Act of 1839. In Wiltshire the effect was at once shown in a doubling of the rates. From Michaelmas 1840 a special police rate was levied. It equalled, and in some years exceeded, the amount of the county rate for all other purposes, complained quarter sessions in a petition to the Common in 1851. 'Justice demands in the opinion of your Petitioners, that a portion at least of this expence should be defrayed from National Resources, because whilst all kinds of property are protected by it, rateable property alone contributes to the Cost; and it appears to your Petitioners, impolitic and inconsistent, that the charges attendant on the Prevention and Detection of offenders should not be defrayed at least in part from the same Funds, and for the same reasons, which bear the cost of Prosecutions, and maintenance of Prisoners after Conviction.' (fn. 94) A few years later the claims of the local authorities were met in the County and Borough Police Act of 1856, by which the Government undertook to pay one-quarter of the cost of the pay and clothing of every force certified by an inspector to be efficient in numbers and discipline. (fn. 95) From 1856 therefore another sphere of county administration came under the scrutiny of a government inspector.
The Home Office inspector, it would appear, had no hesitation in certifying the efficiency of the Wiltshire constabulary, and the force continued to earn his commendation as each year he came and for three or four days watched it at work. Not that there was nothing to criticize, adequately as the force performed its duties. A new salary scale was adopted in 1859 'with a view to make such pay more on a par with that of similar Officers in other Counties'; pay rates were raised again in 1866; but in 1873 the inspector noted that there was some difficulty in keeping the force up to strength owing to the higher wages offered in other occupations and by other police authorities. (fn. 96) In 1875 he commented upon the lack of a 'system of progressive advancement', rewarding long service by promotion or pay increments. (fn. 97) As population increased, especially in the industrial areas of the county, the need for more constables made itself felt; after strong comment to this effect in the inspector's 1871 report, in which he pointed out that the population had risen by 7,302 since 1861, quarter sessions sanctioned an addition of ten constables. (fn. 98) The rapid growth of Swindon in particular was raising problems in the 70's and 80's. In 1882 the Swindon detachment was given four reinforcements, in 1888 four more; but in the following year the inspector was still insisting on the need for more police in the area. (fn. 99) In 1891 seven more officers were appointed for duty in Swindon. The strength of the force was now 223, representing a proportion of one constable to every 1,116 of the population, as compared with one to 1,157 in 1881 and one to 1,215 in 1871. (fn. 100) The recommendations of the inspector, and the publicity he gave in his annual reports to the shortcomings of the force and the superior methods which had come under his notice elsewhere, thus served to prod the Wiltshire justices gently forward at times when they appeared content to rest at the level of achievement which they had attained in an earlier and less exacting period. Nor was this the only channel through which the central government made its influence felt. Circulars in increasing numbers arrived from the Home Office drawing attention to the new responsibilities cast by the legislature upon quarter sessions and the county police. Though the Home Secretary did not fix the pay scales, his sanction was necessary for their introduction; and he could exercise a veto on the appointment of the chief constable, as in 1870, when on the resignation of Captain Meredith he declined to confirm the appointment of the successor selected by the justices on the ground that he was too old for the post. (fn. 101)
The Police (Expenses) Act of 1874 raised the Exchequer contribution to half the cost of pay and clothing. (fn. 102) In the ten years 1880–9 the total expenditure on the police amounted to £188,496, of which the central government paid £83,825. Of the expenses which the Exchequer failed to aid, the most important were the cost of building lockups and station houses, which between 1854 and 1879 had involved an outlay of nearly £12,000, (fn. 103) and the superannuation payments to retired members of the force. By 1881 quarter sessions was viewing with alarm the rapid exhaustion of the police superannuation fund, which in 1867 had stood at £13,000. (fn. 104) By 1883, when there were 4 superintendents, 7 inspectors, 11 Serjeants, and 31 constables on pension, the capital had dwindled to £1,800, annual expenditure exceeded £2,000, and nearly £1,000 had to be found out of the rates. (fn. 105) It was a problem which confronted many other authorities with longestablished forces; but the situation, reported year after year to the Home Secretary by the inspectors, a source of anxiety to police officers and of irritation to police authorities, was not tackled till the passing of the Police Act of 1890. (fn. 106)
Wiltshire was almost entirely free from one persistent evil of police administration: the proliferation of small and inefficient borough forces. While Kent in 1880 had 15 separate forces, Devon 9, and Cornwall 8, in Wiltshire Calne, Chippenham, Devizes, and Marlborough had agreed to let quarter sessions do their policing for them in return for an annual contribution towards the cost; Wilton and Malmesbury made similar agreements when they were granted municipal charters in 1885. (fn. 107) Salisbury alone maintained an independent force. This consisted in 1857 of a superintendent, a serjeant, and 8 constables, to whom were added in the following year a serjeant and a constable, policing an area of 620 acres and a population of 11,657. (fn. 108) The inspector's comments cannot be said to be more than luke-warm in their approval. The duties on the whole are tolerably well provided for', he remarked in 1864, 'and I consider the force to be efficient'. (fn. 109) But in the list he gives of 41 boroughs in the southern district with a population exceeding 5,000, arranged in order of efficiency, Salisbury was fourth from the bottom. Seven years later it had moved up one place in the merit table, but it was still the lowest English borough of this size, and only four Welsh boroughs, Carmarthen, Cardiff, Neath, and Swansea, were placed below it. (fn. 110)
Wiltshire in 1835 had no publicly provided lunatic asylum, apart from the workhouse wards, but there were six proprietary establishments run for private profit at Laverstock, Fisherton Anger, Box, Devizes, Fiddington (in Market Lavington) and Fonthill Gifford. (fn. 111) The inspection of these asylums formed an important duty of quarter sessions; their proprietors had to seek an annual renewal of their licences, and committees of visitors were appointed at the Michaelmas sessions. A proposal to open a county asylum for pauper lunatics was rejected in 1838 as an unnecessary expense when Wiltshire had so many private institutions 'conducted by individual proprietors of Integrity and respectability and . . . Subject to the Inspection and Control of the Magistrates'. (fn. 112) In 1845 this aspect of county government was brought under central supervision by the Act which established the Board of Commissioners in Lunacy, charged to visit and report on all establishments in private or public hands where lunatics were housed and treated. (fn. 113) It throws a most revealing light on the peculiar limitations of quarter sessions administration that not one of the institutions to which the justices had referred so complacently in 1838 met with the approval of the Commissioners in Lunacy; and the management of two of them was outstandingly bad.
The old, rambling Kingsdown House at Box, a lunatic asylum for some three centuries, was in the commissioners' view ill adapted for the purpose. The staff was too small, the condition of the pauper patients 'most wretched'. The proprietor had for years ignored the Act which required every asylum containing a hundred patients to have a resident medical officer. This fact was immediately drawn to the attention of quarter sessions; 'the Justices, however, replied that they saw no legal reason to refuse (and they have accordingly again granted) a Licence for ninety-nine patients, thereby enabling Dr. Langworthy still to keep open a large establishment of indifferent character, without its having the benefit of a Medical Resident'. (fn. 114) Ten years later—ten years during which the committee of justices continued to visit Kingsdown House, and quarter sessions annually agreed to the proprietor's application for a licence—conditions had changed so little that the commissioners wrote to urge that unless a marked improvement took place the licence should not be renewed. (fn. 115) The case of Belle Vue, at Devizes, is even more striking. 'All the evils which formerly prevailed in Licensed Houses receiving Pauper Patients were found to exist in this establishment.' (fn. 116) The commissioners communicated to the justices the abuses they had discovered—the number of patients in excess of the licensed figure, the inadequate dietary, the defective bedding, the excessive use of mechanical restraint—abuses which they considered mainly due to the proprietor's 'having failed to expend a fair and sufficient sum for the care, clothing, and maintenance of the paupers, in return for the payments made to him by the parishes'. (fn. 117) No reply came from the justices, and the licence was renewed as usual. Three years later the commissioners again wrote to quarter sessions to recommend that the pauper patients should be removed, but again the justices ignored the advice. (fn. 118) It may be presumed that there was nothing more sinister than ignorance and an obstinate refusal to admit error behind the attitude of the Wiltshire justices, but the evidence certainly suggests that they approached this duty with a perfunctoriness bred of old and comfortable routine, and a judgement probably too easily swayed by the influences of long personal acquaintance. This same administrative device, inspection by magistrates, had in fact exhibited similar weaknesses earlier in the century in a different field, the execution of the first essays in factory legislation. The moral comes in the end of this unsavoury story. Slowly the justices and the proprietors learned their lesson. The reports on the individual houses grew more and more favourable. The visiting justices began to stir themselves. 'In the visitation of this House', reported the commissioners after inspecting the asylum at Laverstock in 1865, 'we have the advantage of the most active co-operation on the part of the Justices; and, in their last Report, they intimated that unless the defects which they pointed out were forthwith remedied, they would recommend to the Quarter Sessions that the Licence should not be renewed.' (fn. 119)
In 1846 Parliament thrust upon the unwilling justices the duty of providing a county asylum for pauper lunatics. (fn. 120) A committee appointed to consider the question at Easter 1846 did not report till eighteen months later; the delay, as they somewhat naively confessed, was to enable them to watch developments elsewhere so that 'instead of making experiments ourselves we might benefit by the experience of others'. But now speed was essential: the justices in all the adjoining counties either had an asylum in operation or were further advanced in preparations; and if the work were not begun before 8 August 1848 the Secretary of State might direct the county to erect 'such an asylum as he shall think fit', and quarter sessions would forfeit control over the structure and expenditure. (fn. 121) The report, recommending a building to accommodate 250 patients at a cost of between £25,000 and £30,000, was adopted by the court, and the asylum at Devizes was opened on 19 September 1852. Its size was barely adequate at the time (there were some 400 lunatics and idiots chargeable to the unions on 1 January 1851), (fn. 122) but it enabled quarter sessions to begin withdrawing the pauper patients from the private asylums on which the Commissioners in Lunacy had thrown so harsh a light.
Conditions were unquestionably better in the new county asylum. The justices were fortunate in choosing as the first medical superintendent an enlightened, capable, and conscientious officer, John Thurnam, and under his rule the institution earned high praise from the visiting commissioners. 'Of the condition generally in which we have found it to-day', they reported, for example, in 1872, 'and of the care, kindness, and efficiency that characterise its management and supervision, we leave with a very favourable impression.' (fn. 123) Dr. Thurnam, whose health had been impaired by overwork, died the following year, and the commissioners record that his loss was 'the subject of many expressions of regret, volunteered to us by patients, officers, and attendants'. (fn. 124)
Under his successors, although the general tone of the reports was undoubtedly approving, the management of the asylum came in at times for some severe criticism. For the first time the bedding and clothing were described as unsatisfactory (fn. 125) in 1878; the diet was deficient in 1877, the amount of animal food being less than that usually given in asylums, and the beer very inferior in quality—which, at the price of 4d. a gallon, was not surprising. (fn. 126) It would appear, however, that for the most serious defects the medical superintendents could not be held responsible. The buildings were too small to begin with, and large expansion was soon called for to cope with the evergrowing number of patients, which by 1870 had risen by nearly 50 per cent, and by 1889 had more than doubled. (fn. 127) Moreover, the commissioners' demands became more exacting as the recognized standards of asylum construction and administration improved with advancing knowledge and experience. These two pressures towards expansion and improvement met a counter-pressure from the justices, pursuing a policy which seems at times to have passed beyond the merely frugal to the parsimonious. Thus, the commissioners remarked in 1875 that wages were lower than in most asylums, in 1886 that the proportion of attendants was less. (fn. 128) And in the report for 1885 they point to the root cause. They gave a considerable list of suggestions—fire escapes, a detached hospital for infectious diseases, a larger chapel, a good recreation hall, an adequate laundry, a new mortuary—which they described as 'absolute needful improvements to bring up this Asylum to the usual standard in other county Asylums'; and they went on, 'and here it may be well to note that the cost of maintenance is, and has been, very low, so that even if all these improvements were carried out the expense would not be very great'. (fn. 129) In 1884 the maintenance rate per head had been reduced to 7s. 7d. a week; five years before it had been 9s. 4d. The commissioners observed in 1886 that the new rate was very low, 'and there should be no attempt to reduce it'. (fn. 130) Yet in 1889 it was lowered again to 7s.; and the commissioners, observing that the justices in their annual report claimed some credit for this low figure, felt constrained to remark, 'we trust, however, that while all proper economy is practised, efficiency will not, in any department, be sacrificed to it'. (fn. 131) Economy was probably pushed too far when the plans for a detached hospital for infectious diseases were not approved till 1888—twelve years after its construction had been urged by the commissioners. (fn. 132) We have here the obverse of quarter sessions' successful policy of debt redemption.
In 1839 2,336 miles of Wiltshire highways were under the management of the parish vestries, who in that year spent £20,135 on their upkeep. (fn. 133) Until 1862 the administration of these parish highways was governed by the Act of 1835 (5 & 6 Wm. IV, c.50), which ended the ancient obligation on every parishioner to render statute labour and team duty, and enabled the vestry to nominate a surveyor, with power to levy a rate. The system displayed two obvious weaknesses: the surveyors, 'who for the most part are farmers and others engaged in other pursuits, who render their services gratuitously', (fn. 134) brought to their task neither the professional knowledge nor the consistent attention that it demanded; and the service was split up between some 330 authorities, whose areas were too small for economic management, and whose interpretation of their duties varied widely from place to place according to the vigour and public spirit of the vestry and their surveyor. A remedy of a sort for these defects was in fact provided by the Act, since parishes could apply to quarter sessions or special sessions for permission to combine with their neighbours into a highway district, wide enough to justify the appointment of a competent salaried surveyor. But—as Edwin Chadwick constantly complained in the sphere of poor law administration—such self-initiated combinations between autonomous local authorities were very rare indeed, and the Webbs apparently failed to discover a single specimen of these voluntary highway districts. (fn. 135) It is worthy of remark, therefore, that Wiltshire boasts one. At the Trinity sessions of 1838 an order was enrolled for the union for highway purposes of the three parishes of West Kington, North Wraxall, and Castle Combe, and the appointment of William Beak as surveyor to this district. The experiment lasted less than two years. At the Easter sessions of 1840 John Baldwin, churchwarden of West Kington, and John Elms, churchwarden of North Wraxall, gave notice of the desire of their fellow parishioners to determine the union, and it was thereupon dissolved. (fn. 136)
With this minor and temporary exception the vestries of the individual parishes remained in control for another generation after 1835, showing themselves less and less equal to their duties as increasing population and increasing trade threw heavier burdens on the roads. 'In some parts of the County', reported a committee of quarter sessions in 1863, 'the Highways are reported to be tolerably good; in other parts they appear to be very bad; while the cost of repair in different Parishes has varied during the two years from £60 per mile in one Division to 2s. 6d. in another.' Even within the same division the cost had varied widely from one parish to another, in the Chippenham division, for example, from £33 to £2 10s., in the Devizes division from £47 to £2 15s., in the Swindon division from £46 to £4 11s.—differences too wide to be explained by such factors as the nature of the soil, the quality and price of materials, or the amount of traffic; and due, therefore, to some extent to 'a better mode of management in some Parishes than in others'. (fn. 137) For these reasons the committee recommended that the county should adopt the recent Highways Act (25 & 26 Vic, c.61), which empowered quarter sessions to combine parishes into highway districts.
At the beginning of our period quarter sessions had little direct concern with the administration of the highways, its functions being confined to the surveillance of the parish authorities. (fn. 138) The only charge which fell upon the county rates was the repair of the roads over and at the ends of the county bridges; these in 1825 numbered between 40 and 50, and the length of road attached thereto was under 5 miles. (fn. 139) The county was responsible for the maintenance of all bridges which formed part of the common highway, unless they could be shown to be maintainable ratione tenurae; but no new bridge was repairable by the county unless it had been constructed to the approval of the justices and under the inspection of the county surveyor. (fn. 140) The inspection and repair of the bridges thus formed the main work of the county surveyor. We find quarter sessions authorizing him to give the necessary orders for the repair of Turtle bridge, Malmesbury, at a cost not exceeding £35, and 'Maiden Bradley first Water Bridge' for £40. (fn. 141) We find him reporting that 'he had superintended and at different times inspected the Erection of a Bridge lately erected by the Earl of Radnor over the River Chalke and that the same was built of Stone and Iron to his Satisfaction'; on which report the court recorded the certificate, but ordered that the bridge should not be adopted until the surveyor was satisfied that the road and approaches were also satisfactory and in use by the public. (fn. 142) We find quarter sessions ordering in 1859 'that Somerford Magna Bridge be adopted as a County Bridge the Same having been built in or about the year 1799 and constantly used by the County'; (fn. 143) and in 1843 appointing a committee of four to confer with three justices of Berkshire on the respective liabilities of the two counties to repair the bridge at Coleshill over the Cole. (fn. 144) The county did not erect bridges out of the public funds, but merely adopted and maintained the bridges built by individuals such as Lord Radnor or by public subscription, as at Maddington in 1835; (fn. 145) though on one occasion at least the justices supplemented a public subscription with a substantial grant-in-aid towards the cost of a new bridge, which they ordered to be constructed under the direction of their surveyor. (fn. 146) After 1850 the cost of bridge maintenance rose steadily as new bridges were put up by the local inhabitants and the expiring turnpike trusts threw their liabilities on the county. A list drawn up between 1852 and 1855 contains the names of over 100 county bridges. (fn. 147) A schedule of 1874 shows 85 turnpike bridges whose upkeep had now devolved upon the county; a similar schedule of 1877 shows 143. (fn. 148)
The Highways Acts of 1862 and 1878 (fn. 149) completely revolutionized the administration of the Wiltshire roads. Quarter sessions, as we have already noted, resolved to adopt the 1862 Act, which empowered them to divide the county into highway districts. It was left to their discretion whether for highway purposes the poor law union, the petty sessional division, or some other area should be selected. They chose the petty sessional division—preferring it to the poor law union on the grounds that of the 26 Unions among which the Wiltshire parishes were distributed, no fewer than eight had their administrative centres outside the county; while the petty sessional divisions on the whole were 'tolerably uniform in size, and not ill arranged with reference to a central place of meeting'. (fn. 150) Thirteen highway districts were formed, five small divisions (Bradford, Melksham, Trowbridge, Westbury, Whorwellsdown) being united into one district, while the largest division (Salisbury and Amesbury), which covered 73 parishes, was split into two (see table 4). Each district came under a highway board composed of way wardens elected by the constituent parishes together with the justices ex officio, the functions of the vestries being confined to the election of their representatives and the raising of a rate to meet the precept of the highway board. Only in four other counties in the country was the parochial system so completely abandoned. Thirteen sizeable areas thus replaced the three hundred parishes, and in each area a paid district surveyor was put in charge of the highway work. But the Act left virtually unfilled the gap between quarter sessions and the subordinate authorities; it was the district not the county which appointed the surveyor, and any control the justices might have over the programmes of the highway boards was exercised through their ex officio representation on the boards, and their power to sanction the raising of a loan for highway purposes on the security of the district rates.
Table 4: Highway Districts (fn. 151)
Meanwhile, ever since the coming of the railways, the turnpike trusts had been sinking deeper and deeper into insolvency, and of the 22 trusts which operated within the county in 1865 only two were free from debt. (fn. 152) From 1871 the annual Parliamentary Committees on Turnpike Bills were winding them up as quickly as possible, a policy which had the effect of transferring the cost of maintaining the turnpike roads to the local authorities. It was a principal aim of the Highway Act of 1878 to equalize this charge by spreading it over a wider area; and to achieve this object quarter sessions was required to contribute from county funds half the annual cost of maintenance of roads disturnpiked since 1870, together with any other roads which the court might classify as 'main' roads. Thus, as Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice observed, 'the Act for the first time introduced relations between the County and the smaller Local Authorities in regard to all these matters'. (fn. 153) From 1881 quarter sessions was contributing an average of £14,500 a year towards the cost of main roads; and the county surveyor, who hitherto had exercised no authority over the roads apart from the approaches to the bridges, was now required to inspect all roads classified as main, since the county contribution to the highway authority was dependent upon his favourable report.
The new structure
From 1835 onwards a new administrative structure was being assembled piece by piece to carry out the three great functions, poor relief, sanitation, and education, which fell outside the jurisdiction of the justices. It was in the poor law, by far the largest field of local expenditure (between 1815 and 1819 Wiltshire spent £923,865 on poor relief as compared with only £70,857 on the county rate services), (fn. 154) that the deficiencies of the old authorities had for so long and so prominently displayed themselves, and the attack delivered by the Poor Law Report of 1834 on government by magistrates and parish vestries was as sharp as that by the Municipal Corporations Report of 1835 on government by closed corporations. Wiltshire afforded plenty of evidence for the reformers. The assistant commissioner, D. O. P. Okeden, who investigated about half of the Wiltshire parishes, found 'the most dreadful instances of the evils' of the headmoney or scale system, which was universal except in the city of Salisbury and the boroughs of Marlborough and Devizes. (fn. 155) Outdoor relief to the able-bodied was said to have been introduced into the county about a quarter of a century before by Lord Amesbury (Charles Dundas); sometimes the parish pay was granted without check or question, as at Urchfont, where for 45 weeks of the year 50 able-bodied unemployed drew their 3s. a week; elsewhere, as at Winterbourne Bassett under the influence of Lord Holland, a labour rate had been adopted, with a consequent reduction in the poor rate. (fn. 156) Nearly everywhere the workhouse had become 'a mere parish house for the residence of paupers', who were fed, clothed, and lodged at a contract price of 3s. 10d. a head. (fn. 157) At Potterne, inhabited by a 'very discontented and turbulent race', the paupers raised a subscription 'and bought a "Burn's Justice", for the avowed purpose of puzzling the overseers and magistrates'. (fn. 158) At Salisbury, where the three parishes had been consolidated for poor law purposes under a Local Act 40 years before, nearly a quarter of the population of 10,000 were paupers, more than half of this total being described as out-door permanent poor; and Okeden had never beheld 'a more disgusting scene of filth and misrule than the Salisbury Workhouse'. (fn. 159)
It was the aim of the Poor Law Act of 1834 to replace the parish with its narrow boundaries and inbred abuses by the wider area of the union, and the arbitrary paternalism of the justices by the uniform rigour of a distant central department. An emissary from the new Poor Law Commission, Charles Mott, was very early sent to Wiltshire, in response to disturbing reports of unrest and incendiarism near Calne, and complaints from Colonel Napier and others of the local gentry that aged paupers at Freshford, just across the Somerset border, were suffering from cruelty and neglect. (fn. 160) At Calne he found the evils of the old order in full vigour—a poor rate which in 1832 was £1 1s. 6d. a head as compared with a Wiltshire average of 16s. 7d., a workhouse providing five meat days a week, with tea night and morning. (fn. 161) The unions of Bradford and Calne were therefore the first to be formed, in March 1835. Before the end of the year fifteen more unions had been set up in little more than two months by another assistant poor law commissioner, Colonel Charles A'Court, who pursued what his friend and official superior, C. S. Lefevre, admiringly described as his 'cometary course' through the Wiltshire parishes between 4 October and 8 December 1835. (fn. 162) This speed was partly the result of A'Court's indefatigable energy, but even more perhaps because he was himself a Wiltshire man, intimately acquainted with the local magnates whose co-operation it was important to enlist; and his task, moreover, was made the easier by the fact that, with the exception of the city of Salisbury, Wiltshire presented none of the obstacles created elsewhere by earlier unions formed under Gilbert's Act and Local Acts.
It is difficult to make general statements which will apply to Wiltshire unions considered as a whole; and this difficulty is significant, showing as it does how far the new unions were from following a regular pattern, and how much their formation was shaped by local and personal influences. In population they ranged from Amesbury with 7,084 inhabitants to Devizes with 20,638; the number of parishes they comprised varied from Melksham's 6 to Chippenham's 29; in area the smallest was Melksham with 22 square miles, the largest Amesbury with 99. As A'Court explained, the size of the unions he formed was dependent upon a variable factor: the existence in the area of competent persons willing to undertake the duties of chairman and vice-chairman. (fn. 163) For this reason he set up at Highworth a smaller union than he had intended; and at Marlborough again a small union was formed, because he could 'discover not a single soul fit to be a Chairman!' (fn. 164) In some districts the magistrates, 'unworthily jealous of their authority', (fn. 165) sulkily withheld their co-operation; in other places they pressed forward to take the lead, and many well-known names appear among the chairmen of the new boards of guardians—Lord Radnor at Alderbury, Lord Suffolk at Malmesbury, H. N. Goddard at Cricklade and Wootton Bassett, W. H. L. Bruges at Melksham, J. Ravenhill at Warminster, T. H. H. Phipps at Westbury and Whorwellsdown. (fn. 166) At Hindon (Tisbury Union) the powerful influence of John Benett of Pythouse, the member for South Wiltshire, worked against the assistant commissioner, and not a single magistrate or representative of the gentry attended his meeting; to conciliate him A'Court got Benett's accountant made union clerk. (fn. 167) At Trowbridge the magistrates were with A'Court, but the shopkeepers opposed the introduction of the new system out of the fear that their trade would suffer if allowances to the poor were reduced. (fn. 168) In a number of places parochial loyalties resisted merger with neighbouring parishes; one Cricklade farmer, for example, on hearing of the proposed union with Wootton Bassett, grumbled at the thought of being united 'to such a mean place as that where there is not business of any kind to lead men to attend'. (fn. 169) Highworth again was jealous of Swindon, and it was therefore decided that the guardians should meet for the first six months at Highworth and for the next six at Swindon. (fn. 170)
Eventually 328 Wiltshire parishes were organized into 26 unions; the three parishes of Salisbury under their Local Act remained untouched, and three extra-parochial places (Brimslade, South Savernake, and North Savernake) were also left outside the new arrangements. As the county authority was ignored in poor law administration, so also was the county area. No fewer than eleven of these unions cut across the county boundary, 31 of the Wiltshire parishes and parts of two more being attached to unions whose administrative centre lay in a neighbouring county—in the Hampshire unions of Andover, Fordingbridge, New Forest, Romsey, and Stockbridge, the Gloucestershire unions of Cirencester and Tetbury, and the Berkshire unions of Faringdon and Hungerford. Similarly four Somerset parishes were included in the Bradford and Mere unions, and two Dorset parishes in the Mere union. (fn. 171) Fifteen unions (sixteen if Salisbury is included) lay wholly within the county: Alderbury, Amesbury, Calne, Chippenham, Cricklade, Devizes, Highworth, Malmesbury, Marlborough, Melksham, Pewsey, Tisbury, Warminster, Westbury, and Wilton.
As usual in the southern counties, the early reports of the operation of the Act were laudatory. The rate per head fell from 14s. 6d. in the year ending 25 March 1834 to 8s. 9d. in the year ending 25 March 1837. (fn. 172) A'Court had sighed at the 'total want of any thing in the shape of a poor house in many, nay in most, of the Wiltshire Unions'; (fn. 173) but by 1839 thirteen new workhouses had been completed and two more were being built, while in ten other unions old workhouses, altered and enlarged, were in use. Wherever well-regulated workhouses had been established, stated the assistant commissioner, able-bodied pauperism had almost entirely disappeared—as, for example, at Bradford, an 'admirably-conducted Union' which 'appears to have attained a point beyond which no considerable improvement can be looked for'; here on 1 March 1836, in a new workhouse built to hold 400 paupers there were only 95, and the weekly expenditure had sunk from £200 to £61. (fn. 174) The Poor Law Act, it would appear, had a magical effect in Wiltshire, solving the unemployment problem, stiffening the character of the agricultural labourer, reducing the number of improvident marriages 'and indeed marriages of any kind,' (fn. 175) and improving the cultivation out of all recognition.
Formerly at Highworth [reported A'Court], it was not uncommon to have 40 or 50 men out of work in winter: at Swindon there were often 30, at Wainbro' 20 and throughout the several parishes, a large number of sturdy labourers were, in the winter months, wholly dependent on the overseers for their maintenance. There is now scarcely an ablebodied man in the whole Union out of employment. Those who are skilled in agriculture remark the introduction of a vastly improved system of cultivation in the neighbourhood:—hedges repaired, drains cleansed, ponds cleaned out and pastures attended to, giving a different appearance to the County—add to which the labourers, low as their wages still are, are now anxious to obtain employment which formerly they only unwillingly accepted; whilst as a necessary consequence the decrease in the Union expenditure may be estimated at full 50 per cent. Moreover there are only 63 paupers in the two common poor houses; and of this number, few that are capable of earning their own livelihood. (fn. 176)
Where the local surplus of labourers could not be absorbed, emigration was encouraged. From Downton by the spring of 1836 200 people had been assisted to move to Canada, 'where the most cheering prospects present themselves to them'; (fn. 177) and by 1842 over 500 had emigrated from 18 Wiltshire villages. (fn. 178)
The picture appeared less bright when distress fell on the cloth manufacturing districts in 1841–2, hitting particularly the Bradford and Melksham unions, in the former of which there was a riot in November 1841 among the able-bodied men in the workhouse. (fn. 179) It seems very probable that Colonel A'Court was one of the assistant commissioners, 'lawyers and soldiers mostly', (fn. 180) who, Chadwick alleges, were responsible for the perversion of the original poor law scheme, and who on the grounds of economy favoured the general mixed workhouse instead of the specialized institutions which he and Nassau Senior, had intended. A full description of poor law administration in Wiltshire cannot be given here, and there is an obvious danger in presenting selected cases which may or may not be typical of the whole. It happens, however, that we have a few pieces of evidence about conditions in a number of Wiltshire workhouses which possess a peculiar value; for this reason—they are given by an independent expert, with no poor law axe to grind, concerned only to consider the effects of workhouse conditions upon one class of unfortunates: a commissioner in lunacy inspecting the arrangements for pauper lunatics confined in workhouses. The commissioner who visited the Tisbury workhouse in October 1862 criticized the building and the administration point by point. The buildings were 'in a state of extreme dilapidation'; there were only two privies; the site adjoined the parish burial ground, seepage from which contaminated the well; the rooms were barely furnished and comfortless, and, according to the inmates, swarmed with rats, mice, and bugs; in winter water ran down the walls, and the lower floors had to be mopped two or three times a day. The only classification in the House consists of the separation of the sexes. The old and young, good and bad, are associated together, at all events, as to taking exercise in the same yards, which are cheerless, and in a rough state, and very confined.' As for the dietary, the dinners consisted on Sunday of suet dumpling, on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday of bread and cheese, on Friday of soup and bread, and on Tuesday and Thursday of 3 ounces of bacon and 20 ounces of potatoes. (fn. 181) In the Warminster house inmates in 1867 were given four dinners of bread and cheese, one of soup, and only two of meat; when the lunacy commissioner urged that this was insufficient, the medical officer was of the opinion that it might be remedied by an additional allowance of tea and bread-and-butter. (fn. 182) At Amesbury there were three dinners of pea-soup, two of suet pudding, and two of three ounces of cooked bacon; 'it was stated by the Guardians, with expressions of regret, that however low this dietary might be in the Visiting Commissioners' opinion, it was higher than the able-bodied labourers in the neighbourhood were able to obtain for themselves'. (fn. 183)
Table 5 (fn. 184): Expenditure on Poor Relief, 1840–99
These figures make plain the two main tendencies. First, there was a decline in the total expenditure on poor relief, particularly noticeable in the last twenty years of the century. The expenditure for 1880–9 was 31 per cent. lower than that for 1840–9; the highest expenditure for any one year was in 1848 (£156,245), the lowest in 1889 (£87,047); after 1856 the annual figures only twice touch £130,000 (in 1869 and 1870). Secondly, while the figures for in-maintenance are somewhat higher at the end of the period than at the beginning, the out-relief expenditure fell by 54 per cent. There was a corresponding decline in the pauper population: between 1856–60 and 1886–90 the indoor figures fall by 7.9 per cent., the outdoor by 46.2 per cent., the total by 42.1 per cent.; over the same period the figures for the adult able-bodied show an even bigger decline—indoor 39.6 per cent., outdoor 58.9 per cent., the total 55.9 per cent. Even in 1856–60 the able-bodied adults numbered only 14.8 per cent. of the total pauper population; by 1886–90 the percentage had sunk to 11.3. (fn. 185) A poor law system designed primarily with the object of deterring the able-bodied pauper was in fact administering a range of medical, educational, and protective services for the benefit of the dependent and orphaned children, the aged, the lunatics, and the sick who formed nine Wiltshire paupers out of every ten. By 1910 a Wiltshire guardian was testifying to the 'enormous increase . . . of what may be called the humanitarian aspect of the treatment of the poor in the workhouse', and contemplating with equanimity a future in which the workhouse would 'gradually become a sort of district hospital'. (fn. 186)
Of the Wiltshire boroughs five—Calne, Chippenham, Devizes, Marlborough, Salisbury—were given an elected town council by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. (fn. 187) But the Act did little to widen the powers of these authorities, and it did nothing at all for the urban areas whose names were omitted from its schedules. In a few places —Bradford, Chippenham, Devizes, Malmesbury, Melksham, Salisbury, Trowbridge —bodies of improvement commissioners wielded powers under a Local Act; at Trowbridge, for example, commissioners appointed under 39 Geo. III, c.61, exercised paving, cleansing, and lighting powers within 'the limits of a distance of three quarters of a Mile from the centre of the Front door of the George Inn'. But the essential services of an urban community, sewerage and house drainage, a pure and ample water-supply, street paving and cleansing, could not be satisfactorily provided under the existing powers of either the town councils or the improvement commissioners. The Public Health Act of 1848 and the Local Government Act of 1858 attempted to fill this gap, by enabling a locality to set up a sanitary authority, which in a municipal borough would be the town council and elsewhere an ad hoc local board elected by the ratepayers. Altogether 10 local boards of health were established in Wiltshire, 3 (Calne, Salisbury, Wilton) under the Public Health Act of 1848, the other 7 (Chippenham, Devizes, Marlborough, Swindon Old Town, Swindon New Town, Trowbridge, Warminster) under the Local Government Act of 1858. (fn. 188) The achievements of these bodies may be illustrated here by the example of Salisbury, where an energetic local board carried out, in the face of powerful opposition from the cottage owners, a large and effective scheme of public works between June 1853 and October 1854, spending £13,000 on main drainage and £14,500 on water-supply; there was a gratifying fall in the death-rate for the city from 28 per thousand for the ten years before the works were completed to 20 per thousand for the ten years after. (fn. 189)
Meanwhile, in the rural areas the guardians had acquired duties which lay outside and beyond their primary responsibility of poor relief, and the union was becoming the framework to support the varied functions of local government. The Births, Deaths and Marriages Act of 1836 (fn. 190) adopted the union as the registration district; the Vaccination Act of 1840 (fn. 191) required the guardians to provide a gratuitous vaccination service. There seemed no reason why this authority with its convenient area and capable administrative machinery should not be employed for other purposes—especially since, so the poor law reformers argued, the business of poor relief was bound to fall off as the workhouse test came into full operation. Before the highways committee of 1838 Chadwick urged that the guardians should also act as a highways board; Colonel A'Court, it is interesting to note, disagreed on the ground that the Wiltshire guardians were already too fully occupied to assume any new duties. (fn. 192) The guardians were not given the highways, nor were they taken into partnership with the justices on a 'county council' as suggested by the County Rates Commission of 1836; (fn. 193) but in 1846 they were made responsible for enforcing the first Nuisances Removal Act. (fn. 194) And finally the Sanitary Commission of 1869–71 made its pronouncement in favour of the union as the most suitable area for sanitary purposes, a decision which the Webbs have described as 'the turning point in the Local Government history of the nineteenth century'. (fn. 195) The course of future development was now clearly laid down: the union was to become a general purpose authority, 'what may be called the rural municipality'. (fn. 196)
The Public Health Act of 1872 mapped out the whole country into urban and rural sanitary areas, and indicated clearly the sanitary authority for each area. In Wiltshire thirteen urban sanitary authorities were recognized: the town councils of Calne, Chippenham, Devizes, Marlborough, and Salisbury, the local boards in Swindon Old Town, Swindon New Town, Trowbridge, Warminster, and Wilton, and the improvement commissions in Bradford, Malmesbury, and Melksham. The rural sanitary authorities were the boards of guardians ruling over what was left of the union after the urban authorities had been punched out. Hence of the Wiltshire unions only six coincided with the rural sanitary area, and in the remaining cases union and rural sanitary authority differed in boundary, population, and rateable value. (fn. 197)
The official policy of consolidating the functions of local government within the borders of the sanitary area was reflected in the Highways Act of 1878, which empowered quarter sessions to adjust the highway districts to coincide with the rural sanitary areas, and transfer highway powers to the latter if the guardians expressed a willingness to assume the duty. The Wiltshire justices, under the leadership of Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, at once resolved to adopt this principle. A boundary committee was set up to carry out the provisions of the Highways Act and the Divided Parishes Act of 1876. (fn. 198) Taking as their objective a two-tier structure of local government areas and authorities, the committee launched a clear-sighted programme designed to remodel the existing system upon two fundamental areas, the county and the sanitary district. The firm delineation of the county boundary, treated so lightly by the poor law planners, was a primary aim. Some rectification of the boundary had already been carried out 40 years before as a consequence of the electoral reform of 1832. The island parishes of Kingswood and Poulton had been annexed to Gloucestershire; to Berkshire had been transferred the parish of Swallowfield, part of Wokingham, Hinton Tithing in Hurst, and Didnam Tithing in Shinfield. Wiltshire had gained at the same time Minety parish from Gloucestershire, and part of Inglesham parish from Berkshire. (fn. 199) The boundary committee now approached the Local Government Board to make orders transferring to Wiltshire unions those parishes which in 1835 had been embodied in unions whose administrative centres lay in neighbouring counties. The parishes of Chute, Chute Forest, Ludgershall, and North Tidworth passed in this way from the Andover to the Pewsey Union; Marston Maisey from the Cirencester to the Cricklade and Wootton Bassett Union; West Dean from the Stockbridge to the Alderbury union. The Bradford union surrendered the parish of Freshford to the Bath union; Silton and the chapelry of Bourton were severed from the Mere union and attached to the Shaftesbury union. (fn. 200) At the same time, while the untidy edges of the county boundary were thus being trimmed away, within the county the rural sanitary area was being developed into the basic unit for local administration. The pattern of highway districts laid out in 1863 was gradually redrawn, and between 1879 and 1887 eight rural sanitary authorities whose areas had been brought into coincidence with those of the highway districts were granted highway powers. (fn. 201) The Local Government Act of 1888, however, halted this process of adaptation, or rather diverted it into a different direction, leaving 10 highway districts which were not deprived of their functions until 1894. (fn. 202) Nor was this all. The petty sessional divisions were also reshaped on the lines of the union boundaries. (fn. 203) By the time of the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, which employed the petty sessional division as the unit for constructing the new electoral constituencies, this process had been nearly completed, and Wiltshire was therefore free from the trouble which afflicted many other counties where the parliamentary divisions were based upon a long outdated administrative area.
Table 6 (fn. 204): Poor Rates: Expenditure, 1840–89
|On poor relief||£||£||£||£||£|
|Salaries of officers||157,971||169,184||171,035|
|On purposes unconnected with poor relief|
|County Rate (fn. 218)||198,495||230,936||242,214||230,104||342,509|
|Parliamentary, &c. registration||1,630||3,954||4,609||9,144||10,730|
|Rural Sanitary Authorities||12,424||27,983|
|School Attendance Committees||2,712||11,884|
|On purposes partly connected with poor relief|
|Parochial Assessment Act||11,820||1,979||5,988||7,640||8,238|
|All Other Purposes||44,656||36,959||57,079||56,465||51,969|
Town councils and urban sanitary areas had their own rating powers, but all other administrative bodies within the county—quarter sessions, highway boards, poor law unions and rural sanitary authorities, school boards, burial boards—were fed from the poor rates. The growth of new services and new authorities, and their changing relative importance as measured in financial terms, may be read in the figures of the poor rate for the half-century 1840–89.
The problem of county government, 1880–9
It may well be that this last half-century of government by the Wiltshire justices was their best period. They were in 1835 a reasonably competent body by the standards of the time, and their administration of the county business was honest and solid, if shortsighted and fumbling. Under the scrutiny of the government inspectors the limitations of their knowledge and sympathy stand sharply revealed. We observe, for example, their casual, amateur methods, which left undetected—or unredressed—the abuses of Belle Vue and Kingsdown House; their failure to tackle with sufficient determination such administrative anomalies as the peripatetic sessions and the differences in the management of the county gaol and the New Prison; their reluctance to take on important new responsibilities, such as the erection of a county lunatic asylum and the appointment of a county analyst. On the other hand, they were quick to see the value of a paid constabulary, and the county force was efficiently organized from the start; the county asylum, once it had been erected, was well run, though in the later years at any rate with too parsimonious a hand; the Devizes prison earned Home Office praise; and in setting up highway districts in 1863 Wiltshire was ahead not only of most other counties but also of an uncertain and half-hearted central department. Much of the improvement in the second half of the period under discussion is undoubtedly due to the pressure of the central Government and the educational effect of the inspectors' reports; but in the last ten years or so we are aware of an access of vigour, a clearer vision of means and objects, issuing in an administrative scheme consciously formulated by the county itself.
Three problems—so intimately connected that they are rather to be regarded as three aspects of a single problem—had been developing throughout this half-century, and by the 1880's were in urgent need of solution. First was the financial problem represented by the increase in county expenditure, which in Wiltshire had nearly doubled between 1840 and 1889. In the House of Commons it was a Wiltshire man, Sir Massey Lopes, (fn. 205) who acted as chief spokesman for the country gentry in their demand that a share of the rising cost of local administration should be shifted to the shoulders of the owners of personal property. Echoes of his arguments may be heard in a petition drawn up by the justices at the Hilary sessions of 1871. (fn. 206) This begins by pointing out that the county rates, which form a heavy and annually increasing charge on real property, are levied for the most part for purposes which 'are essentially of national importance and are maintained for the security of the life of all Persons equally and for the protection of every description of property'—such as the police, militia stores, lunatic asylum, coroners, prisons, and administration of justice. Moreover, 'only an average of little more than 20 per cent, of the amount of the Rates so collected under the authority of the Court is as respects its expenditure in any way under its control, while nearly 80 per cent. is expended under Statute and is therefore under the control of the Imperial Government'. A Commons return of 1867, for example, showed that in Wiltshire the whole of the county expenditure for that year was £28,856 19s. 8d.; of which the amount which was 'statutory and over which the Magistrates had no control' was £26,094 19s. 11d.; so that the amount 'under the independent jurisdiction of the Magistrates was only £2,761 19s. 9d. and that includes Salaries, Bridges, Highways, Printing and other miscellaneous payments'. The petition represents clearly enough the alarm of the agricultural interests at the growth of the county rate, and the sense of the justices that, as central direction extended more and more into the localities, they were left with little but a fraction of their traditional autonomy. But, as is not unusual with such documents, it is inaccurate in its facts (the expenditure for 1867 was actually £36,669 7s. 9d., which left £10,574 7s. 10d. under the justices' control), (fn. 207) and it tried to prove too much. It is true that the amount levied for the county rate in the ten years 1860–9 was 20.3 Per cent. higher than the figures for the previous 10 years 1850–9; (fn. 208) but the aggrieved justices neglected to take into account the fact that the county valuation was a generation out of date. The new valuation which came into force in 1872 was 35 per cent. above that for 1840, and in consequence the average annual rate in the pound, which for the ten years 1862–71 was 5.15d., sank in the following ten years 1872–81 to no more than 3.6d. (fn. 209) If the average annual rate in the pound was rising steadily before 1872, the justices themselves were largely to blame for not revising the valuation to take into account the growing wealth of the county.
In the ten years following this petition the amount levied for the county rates showed a decline of 6.1 per cent. The increase in these years came not in the county rate but in the rates levied by the highway boards. In the last decade of the justices' administration, however, the amount of the county rate suddenly rose by 52.9 per cent, reflecting the effect of the Highways Act of 1878 which threw upon the county half the cost of maintaining main roads; and as a result the average annual rate in the pound again shot up to 5.125d.
Table 7 (fn. 210): Percentage Variation in Poor and County Rates, 1850–89
|Poor Rates||-10.8||+ 3.7||+13.6||-8.6|
|Average Annual Rate in the Pound for County Rates||4.45d.||5.00d.||3.75d||5.125d.|
County government was now on the eve of a period of rapid expansion, and the rising cost of county services sharpened the demand for ratepayers' representation in the county authority. This was the second problem, the constitutional issue which had been postponed after 1835. All the new local authorities which had been created since that year were representative bodies, responsible to an electorate of ratepayers. Quarter sessions stood alone, a 'rural House of Lords', (fn. 211) its management of the county fund 'the exercise of an irresponsible power' (fn. 212) by a nominated and virtually self-perpetuating body. The anachronism could not continue, though the justices, like all constituted governments before and since, fought tenaciously to maintain their hold on power. A conservative bill to establish elective county boards—the latest of a long series of such bills beginning with Joseph Hume's attempts in 1836 (fn. 213)—was before Parliament in 1878, and we possess an interesting record of Wiltshire reactions to the proposal. Ralph Ludlow Lopes moved at the Easter sessions that the measure was 'not calculated to provide for the more efficient or economical administration of the County Funds. That the objects of the Bill would be attained by adding a certain number of representatives of the ratepayers (not being Justices) to the present Members of the Court to assist in its administrative functions without imposing on the ratepayers the expensive machinery of this Bill and destroying the administrative duties of the Court of Quarter Sessions which have hitherto been performed with efficiency and economy and without the intervention of the Local Government Board.' An amendment was then moved that the objects of the measure would be better achieved by adding 'a fair and sufficient number of representatives of the ratepayers' to the court and the various committees 'for all purposes except Judicial Business or any business relating to Prisons or Police'; but this was lost by the casting vote of the chairman. (fn. 214) Opinion amongst the justices had moved far for such motions to be discussed in court, but not yet far enough, and they were still intent on defending a position which after the Reform Act of 1884 became quite untenable.
There was, thirdly, the administrative problem, which added its weight to the financial and political arguments for a radical constitutional change in the government of the county. Fifty years of social legislation and government activity of a scale and pace never before known had produced in Wiltshire a confusing variety of new authorities— 7 elective town councils (Malmesbury and Wilton having now joined the 5 created in 1835), (fn. 215) 6 other urban sanitary areas under local boards or improvement commissioners, 17 poor law unions and rural sanitary authorities, 10 highway boards, 20 or 30 burial boards, and a similar number of school boards and school attendance committees. (fn. 216) The picture in Wiltshire was, as a matter of fact, far less complex and confusing than in most other counties. Partly this was because of the comparative absence of large urban centres, partly it was the result of the conscious policy pursued by quarter sessions since 1878, as described in the previous section, of rationalizing the administrative system by assimilating the various special areas to the sanitary districts, and adjusting the latter to the county boundaries. Two administrative structures now existed side by side, one the ancient county, the other the new bodies which had grown up since 1835. The great task of legislation, as it appeared to Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, the principal architect of quarter sessions policy, was to integrate the two structures into a single system. To do that, however, it was not sufficient merely to recast areas and rectify boundaries, as the Wiltshire justices had attempted to do. The fissure must be closed between subordinate authorities which were representative bodies and a county authority which was not. The democratic foundations of English local government could not support an aristocratic superstructure.