Wisbech: Charters of incorporation

Pages 256-258

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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Borough of Wisbech

Azure represntations of St. Peter and St. Paul or standing within a double canopy or. (Granted 1929.)

The charter of 1549, (fn. 1) making Wisbech a corporate borough for the first time, cost £260 10s. 10d. (fn. 2) The burgesses were given the right of perpetual succession and the use of a common seal. (fn. 3) They were to hold the guild property in socage, and were licensed to acquire further property up to £100 in value, and to lease (up to twenty years), grant, sell and exchange their lands. Householders were to meet in the common hall annually from 1 November 1550 to choose ten of the better men among them to manage the property, who were allowed, but not enjoined, to take advice from their fellows. A schoolmaster was to be provided at a salary of £12 8s., and an annual distribution of £3 15s. was to be made to the poor. The bishop was made Visitor of the Corporation. The sea shores, banks and streams were to be maintained by the Corporation, as they had been by the guardians and brethren of the guild. The last provision had important consequences. It enabled the Corporation to keep control of the port, in connexion with which they adopted, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many wellintentioned but not always beneficial measures. The port of Wisbech still remains a Corporation enterprise, and has not, as is commonly the case, been entrusted to an ad hoc body.

No mention is made of any mayor or chief burgess in the charter. At the first recorded election of the 'ten men' (1564) Richard Best was appointed 'baley for the receipt of all the lands and tenements ... for this yere to come', (fn. 4) but the office of town bailiff, as it came to be called, was never legally recognized.

In 1610, apparently as a result of a suit against the Crown regarding feudal dues on newly purchased estates (fn. 5), application was made for a renewal of the charter. The chief amendments asked for were authority to purchase lands and tenements up to £3 or to £5 annually, and the restriction of the franchise to £10 freeholders. (fn. 6) Neither of these amendments was included in the charter granted the following year, (fn. 7) which retained the £100 limit on the Corporation estates and restricted the franchise to 40s. freeholders only. The date of the election of the governing 'ten men', now styled' capital burgesses, was changed from 1 to 2 November; if no meeting of the freeholders took place the outgoing capital burgesses were empowered to choose their successors. (fn. 8) The other clauses of the charter repeat those of 1549 in greater detail. (fn. 9)

After the Restoration there was a movement amongst the capital burgesses to get the charter amended so as to allow them a life tenure. Four of them, claiming to be the 'major part', i.e. presumably representing public opinion in the town, signed a resolution of protest. (fn. 10) These four were not re-elected in the following November (1668), but application was sought and granted for the renewal of the charter a second time, after a 'cavett and petition put in to stope our proceedings'. (fn. 11) The charter as renewed (fn. 12) does not differ in any material respect from that of 1611. The schoolmaster was to be appointed by the ten capital burgesses with the assent of ten other burgesses.

Wisbech thus enjoyed a reasonably democratic constitution before 1835, and there is little evidence of corruption or negligence in the Corporation's management of the town's affairs. In 1752 John Garland, the retiring town bailiff, refused to hand over his books, causing a long and expensive Chancery suit, (fn. 13) at the end of which (1756) he admitted his liabilities and agreed to hand over all deeds and writings in his possession. (fn. 14) In 1778 Richard Colvile as town bailiff induced several tradesmen to accept promissory notes from him in discharge of the sums owed them by the Corporation. Colvile's subsequent bankruptcy caused considerable distress, and a resolution of 21 October 1778 asserts 'that this mode is disgraceful, and very detrimental to the credit of the Corporation, and ought not to be followed by any of our Town Bailiffs for the time to come'. (fn. 15)

Some trouble was occasionally caused by the operation of the Test and Corporation Acts. Thus in 1819, James Hill, (fn. 16) an uncompromising Unitarian, obtained nomination to stand for capital burgess, and was rejected on show of hands by 12 to 5. He demanded a poll and got in, but refused to answer whether he had received the sacrament according to law. Thereupon the Revd. Jeremiah Jackson, Headmaster of the Grammar School and later vicar of Elm, who was eleventh on the list, demanded Hill's seat and was declared elected. Hill made similar fruitless attempts to become a capital burgess in 1820 and 1821. (fn. 17) In the later 18th century, however, the Quakers Jonathan Peckover (1758) and Joseph Hancock (1773) were elected to the Corporation; the latter was town bailiff in 1774.

More generally, the Corporation took seriously its responsibilities for poor relief, the paving and lighting of the streets, and the improvement of the port. During the 18th century, however, despite its ample endowments in land, it accumulated a considerable debt on account of these services. Matters came to a head in 1774-5, when an investigating committee reported that the bonded debt, which had stood at £1,750 in 1760, had been reduced in fifteen years by only £338 7s. 10d., while £846 9s. had been paid in interest. It was recommended that £1,000 be raised by annuities on lives at £10 per cent. for ages of 60 and £11 per cent. for 65 years and upward. (fn. 18) Insolvency was staved off for another fifty years, during which time the building of the custom house, corn exchange, and cattle market severely taxed the resources of the Corporation. In 1822-3 it was reported (fn. 19) that the annual revenue was £1,919 6s. 9d. Of this £1,481 14s. 9d. came from 754 acres of landed property, and the remainder from profits of the port, fairs, and markets. Expenditure amounted to £2,399 1s. 11½d., and bonded debt to £1,980. To redress the balance 'wise frugality' was proposed, together with a reduction in the number of watchmen and scavengers, and the elimination of over 200 of the 237 street lamps then in use. (fn. 20) But even in 1832 income stood at £1,779 18s. and expenditure at £1,954 14s. 8d. (fn. 21)

During the latter part of its unreformed existence the Corporation became obsessed with the idea (fn. 22) that any improvement of the drainage of the neighbourhood would react unfavourably on the port and Nene Outfall. They opposed without success several schemes of improvement-in Sutton Marsh (1719) and in Thorney Fen and the Bedford level generally (1749 and 1775-6). (fn. 23) Their efforts in 1720 and 1723 to preserve navigational facilities by a statutory prohibition upon any further embanking along the Nene Outfall were also unsuccessful. (fn. 24) On the other hand, they combined with the local landowners in erecting an engine to drain Wisbech South Field. (fn. 25)

The Corporation can also be credited with a prompt and patriotic reaction to the wars with revolutionary France. On 26 November 1793 it was resolved to convene a public meeting 'to take into consideration the propriety of opening a subscription for supplying His Majesty's Forces serving in Flanders with comfortable articles of extra clothing'. (fn. 26) Next year £50 was voted towards 'the internal defence of the kingdom'. (fn. 27) In the famine year 1795 the capital burgesses combined with the 'respectable inhabitants' to buy up a supply of wheat against the coming scarcity (in July) and gave £105 (September) to a fund for reducing the price of bread to the poor. (fn. 28) A company of Volunteers, about 60 strong, was raised from 1797 to 1801, and was revived in 1807 when Wisbech, with Whittlesey and Thorney, produced 300, and later 600 men. (fn. 29) The peace celebrations of 1814 were on a grand scale. 'The coup d'oeil of the Market Place presented a most beautiful spectacle', and about 3,600 (two-thirds of the population of the town) sat down to dinner. 'It was a celebration which will long be remembered by the inhabitants and neighbourhood with gratitude and delight. The sports, though but indifferently managed from the unmanageableness of the spectators, served at least to prevent gross intoxication.' (fn. 30) The news of Waterloo was received in Wisbech on 23 June 1815. (fn. 31)

An Act of Parliament of 1810 (fn. 32) vested in the Corporation power to improve the markets and the port and to pave, cleanse, light, and watch the streets. The chief consequences of this Act were the rebuilding of the Shire Hall, the building of the Town Hall, improvements in the markets and the widening of what is now Union Street. Minor provisions of some interest were the enforcement of brick or stone party walls of not less than 9 in. thickness for new buildings (cl. 31), (fn. 33) the prohibition of gates and doors opening outwards upon the street (cl. 34), and of street 'parking' for excessive lengths of time (cl. 35). The financing of the improvements was to be carried out by an annual rate not exceeding 1s. 6d., and the borrowing of not more than £3,000. The paving was to be undertaken by special Commissioners, the remainder of the improvements under the direction of the capital burgesses.

The Commissioners of 1834 reported very favourably on the Corporation, (fn. 34) which, as has been shown, was a reasonably public spirited and democratically elected body. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, therefore, caused less of an upheaval in Wisbech than in many towns. As the burgesses stated in an address of gratitude to King William IV for the renewal of the charter, 'we, as a Town Corporate, do not derive from the measure advantages to the same extent [as other boroughs] in consequence of a peculiarity in our old Charter, which had already embrased to a considerable extent, the principle of popular controul recognized by the new law'. (fn. 35) The number of freeholders who voted in the later years of the unreformed Corporation, e.g. 166 in 1815, 172 in 1818, 160 in 1821, 129 in 1822, (fn. 36) compared favourably with the number voting at parliamentary elections, (fn. 37) and was substantial for a town with about 230 entitled to vote, and a population of some 6,000. The principal changes introduced by the 1835 Act were as follows. (1) The practice of taking fines on the granting of leases of Corporation property was prohibited. (2) The administration of the charities was transferred to trustees. (fn. 38) (3) The constitution was normalized by the transformation of the town bailiff into a mayor, and the substitution of aldermen and councillors for capital burgesses. (4) The Corporation was empowered to appoint a Coroner and a Recorder, and to hold a separate commission of the peace. (5) All clergy, both Anglican and Nonconformist, were disqualified from membership of the Corporation. (fn. 39) (6) The publication of abstracts of accounts, which had been done voluntarily since 1818, was made compulsory. (fn. 40) The franchise was given to occupiers of houses and shops rated for three years to the relief of the poor, if residing within 7 miles of Wisbech.

The 'establishment' of mayor, 6 aldermen and 18 councillors continued until 1933, when on the absorption of New Walsoken and the rearrangement of the borough into three wards, it was increased to 8 aldermen and 24 councillors. In 1940 the borough was reorganized in four wards. (fn. 41)


  • 1. Cal. Pat. 1548-9, 339-40. The full text is printed in Watson, Hist. Wisb. (1827), 174-87.
  • 2. Rather more than nine times the official valuation of the guild property made over to the Corporation. But see above.
  • 3. See note 45.
  • 4. Corp. Rec. i, 121. The title 'bailiff' and the fact that he received a gratuity suggest that he was regarded as the agent of the Corporation rather than its master. Wisbech was a manorial borough; the Bishop of Ely was Visitor of the Corporation as well as lord of the manor. On the other hand the town bailiff undoubtedly presided over meetings of the 'ten men' and was invested with executive powers on their behalf. In this sense his position was analogous to that of the chairman of an elected body.
  • 5. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 318; Corp. Rec. iii, 53b. These estates were at Walpole, where the manor was in Crown hands owing to a vacancy in the see of Ely. It seems probable that the monetary equivalent of military service was demanded contrary to the terms of the charter, but the lawsuit has not been traced.
  • 6. Corp. Rec. iii, 91b.
  • 7. C 66/1877, No. 10.
  • 8. This occurred several times in the 17th century, e.g. in 1621 and 1623-6 (Corp. Rec. iv, 27b et seq.).
  • 9. Corp. Rec. iii, 94b.
  • 10. Ibid. iv, 163a.
  • 11. Ibid. 165b.
  • 12. C 66/3108, m. 1-7.
  • 13. C 11/2153/31 (Mitford).
  • 14. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 332; Corp. Rec. vi, 10.
  • 15. Corp. Rec. vi.
  • 16. Father of Octavia Hill.
  • 17. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 335. Jackson in his Diary (2 Nov. 1819) states that in that year Hill was 11th on the poll, Jackson himself being 9th and a certain John Johnson 10th. The incident referred to was in 1820. In the following year some windows in the Grammar School were broken after Hill's failure to get elected.
  • 18. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 333-4; Corp. Rec. vi.
  • 19. The report was made by Jeremiah Jackson, and adopted by the capital burgesses on 13 Oct. 1823 (Jackson Diary, Wisb. Mus.).
  • 20. Corp. Rec. xi, 9-15.
  • 21. Rep. Com. Municipal Corpns., H.C. 116, p. 2555 (1835), xxvi.
  • 22. Not confined to Wisbech. See H. C. Darby, Draining of the Fens (1940), 101-3.
  • 23. Corp. Rec. v, also vi (26 Dec. 1749, 29 Dec. 1775, 1 Jan. 1776); Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 332.
  • 24. Corp. Rec. v.
  • 25. Ibid. iv, 145b.
  • 26. Ibid. viii.
  • 27. Ibid.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. (1898), 335.
  • 30. Diary of Rev. J. Jackson, 4 Aug. 1814 (Wisb. Mus.).
  • 31. Ibid. 23 June, 21 Aug. 1815.
  • 32. 50 Geo. III c. 206.
  • 33. This was a usual provision in contemporary Acts of this type.
  • 34. Rep. Com. Municipal Corpns., H.C. 116, p. 2564. (1835), xxvi.
  • 35. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 338.
  • 36. Figures given in Jackson's Diary.
  • 37. The local government and parliamentary franchises were identical, but the numbers polling at municipal elections seem generally to have been slightly higher.
  • 38. The Trustees were, however, nominated by the Corporation.
  • 39. Up to 1835 seven vicars of Wisbech and two other clergymen had held the office of town bailiff.
  • 40. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 338.
  • 41. Infm. the late E. J. Rudsdale.