A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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CITY GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
City Government, 1762-1835
The long-standing institutions of civic administration which operated in the earlier 18th century - the Assembly and its informal inner circle - were supplemented in 1762 by two new bodies, a board of poorlaw guardians and an improvement commission. (fn. 1) Although both were modern institutions of local government, and although Chester was relatively early among provincial towns in acquiring them, neither marked a radical departure, not least because their memberships overlapped with that of the Assembly, though members of the latter apparently took little part in the affairs of the board of guardians. (fn. 2) The influence of the Assembly's leading figures was nevertheless reinforced rather than undermined by the new bodies, and the Assembly continued to govern the city, by and large, in wholly traditional ways, as an oligarchy tied to the political interest of the Grosvenor family of Eaton Hall. (fn. 3)
The outward forms of city government re-established after the upheaval of the mid 1690s (fn. 4) continued with little alteration until 1835. The corporation or Assembly of 24 aldermen and 40 common councilmen filled vacancies by co-option, and elected from among its ranks the mayor, recorder, sheriffs, and lesser officials. The exclusion of any real participation by the large number of freemen was defended at law several times at great expense and amid increasing political turmoil. (fn. 5)
On average two or three new councilmen were recruited each year to fill places vacated by death, promotion to alderman, or the occasional resignation. (fn. 6) A few refused office and were fined £50, (fn. 7) and in 1775 an attorney claimed exemption and was discharged. (fn. 8) In all there were some 200 new Assemblymen during the period, drawn mainly from a widening circle of well-to-do commercial and mercantile occupations. About half were merchants or retailers in the wealthier trades, notably grocers, druggists, wine merchants, and linendrapers. Among manufacturers only the leather trades were well represented, and as in earlier periods very few members of the corporation were involved in the building trades, food retailing, or clothing manufacture. More new councilmen were styled gentleman or esquire than followed any single occupation. The Grosvenors and their landed allies, especially the Williams-Wynns of Wynnstay (under their former name of Williams long prominent in Assembly affairs), were regularly admitted. Few of the few industrialists active in the city joined the Assembly, which was at least as accommodating to new professions, recruiting, for example, the printer John Monk and the architect Joseph Turner in the 1770s and the newspaper proprietor and businessman John Fletcher in 1810. Surgeons sat on the Assembly throughout the period, lawyers (other than the recorder) occasionally. The first clergyman was elected in 1809: Charles Mytton, rector of the Grosvenors' home parish of Eccleston and a prominent political supporter of theirs. (fn. 9)
The Assembly was apparently more socially selective in choosing aldermen. With an average of only one or two vacancies a year, perhaps as many as half of all councilmen were never promoted, most commonly because they died before serving sufficiently long on the Assembly for their turn to come round, typically between 12 and 19 years. With very few exceptions councilmen were promoted to the aldermanic bench in strict order of seniority. Rapid promotion, however, was offered to allies of the Grosvenors such as Henry Vigars and Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Bt. Proportionately more of the gentlemen and merchants and fewer of the shopkeepers and tradesmen became aldermen, though that may have been because less wealthy men were elected to the Assembly later in life. A few councilmen refused election as aldermen and were fined £100.
The mayor was nominally chosen at a meeting of freemen on the Friday after 20 October, from two candidates (always aldermen) whose names were put forward by the Assembly after an elaborate series of meetings and votes. (fn. 10) In practice, except during the political strife after 1807, (fn. 11) the Assembly almost always nominated the two most senior aldermen who had not already been mayor, and the longer serving of those was almost invariably chosen as mayor at a thinly attended meeting of the freemen. Throughout the period the gap between election as alderman and election as mayor was very short, about two years on average. Virtually all serving aldermen had thus been mayor already, and presumably councilmen were allowed to proceed as aldermen in rough order of seniority on the basis of their willingness, competence, and political acceptability to serve as mayor soon afterwards. Mayors also had to be wealthy, since their allowance, which fluctuated between 100 and 200 guineas, fell far short of the expenses of the office, reckoned in the 1830s to be at least £400 a year. (fn. 12) A high proportion of all councilmen nevertheless eventually served as mayor: of the 100 Assemblymen appointed between 1762 and 1798 no fewer than 54 became aldermen, of whom 40 served as mayor. If an Assemblyman lived for twenty years after his first appointment he was thus almost certain to become mayor. From 1803 the mayor was empowered to appoint a deputy to act in his place in case of illness or other incapacity; the deputy was always a former mayor. (fn. 13)
The full Assembly met infrequently and irregularly, averaging only three sessions a year and on dozens of occasions allowing more than six months to pass between meetings, a pattern established in the 1720s. (fn. 14) Attendance was supposedly enforced by a small fine, (fn. 15) by 1835 not exacted in living memory. (fn. 16) Business normally began with the election of aldermen and common councilmen and proceeded through the appointment of almspeople to the corporation-controlled charities, admissions to the freedom of the city, listing potential recipients of charities, hearing petitions and appointing committees of inquiry, receiving committee reports and making orders, and ending with miscellaneous other business. From 1801 apprenticeship indentures were registered as the final item. (fn. 17)
The corporation was largely reactive rather than forward-looking in its attitude to the city, though it seems to have had a clear and unwavering view about what sort of place it wished Chester to be, and in pursuit of that it was capable of putting aside both narrow interests and tradition. Much time was spent in preventing encroachments on the streets and Rows, (fn. 18) largely by commercial interests very similar to those of most Assemblymen, while the Pentice, for centuries the seat of civic government and as such a highly charged symbol of corporate activity, was removed in the interests of street improvements in two stages in 1781 and 1803. (fn. 19) Concern for the seemliness of the town must have been prompted at least in part by a recognition of its importance to well-bred residents and visitors. The corporation thus kept the walls in good repair, rebuilt the four ramshackle medieval gates in the classical style between 1768 and 1810 with financial help from the Grosvenors, (fn. 20) and removed public conveniences from the walls in 1772. (fn. 21) It laid new pavements for pedestrians along the roads from the Water Tower to the riverside embankment (probably a fashionable promenade) and from the city to Flookersbrook in the 1770s, and paid a city pavior to keep other footways in repair. (fn. 22) It provided clocks at the New Linenhall and the workhouse in 1781, (fn. 23) supplementing those at the Exchange and the Pentice. (fn. 24)
When others took an initiative of which the corporation approved it was co-operative, for example with the promoters of a proposed foundling hospital in 1762 and with Dr. John Haygarth's census of inhabitants in 1775. (fn. 25) It also worked with turnpike trustees and neighbouring townships to maintain roads in the outlying parts of the liberties. (fn. 26) In other respects, however, the Assembly was timid. Strongly in favour of the intended canal to Nantwich and beyond, and indeed a heavy investor through the Owen Jones charity in the company's shares, it took fright at the possible effects of the canal on the physical fabric of the city and became querulous in its dealings with the company, no doubt in part because its investment never paid a dividend. (fn. 27) Water supply was left to private commercial interests. (fn. 28) Pushing forward large projects not directly connected with its existing responsibilities, such as the building of a new bridge in the late 1810s, was beyond its capacity. (fn. 29)
The only significant area in which the Assembly innovated was in relation to the retail and wholesale trades, and even there in the 1760s and 1770s it saw its role in purely traditional terms, acting through the mayor (as ex officio clerk of the markets) against illicit manipulation of the retail markets, and regulating weights and measures for fresh produce, (fn. 30) while at the same time leaving the promotion of the linen trade to private enterprise. (fn. 31) In the 1820s, however, the corporation started new specialist fairs for livestock and cheese and undertook a comprehensive rebuilding of the markets in Northgate Street. (fn. 32)
The Assembly delegated many matters to ad hoc committees, not least the petitions submitted to it on a great range of topics, especially those concerning corporation property or encroachments on the streets and Rows. (fn. 33) Some such committees dealt with diverse business; one which sat in 1774, for example, considered improvements to Bridgegate and Northgate, drew up new regulations for the city waits, and reviewed the leases of the corporation's warehouses in Skinners Lane and on the Roodee. (fn. 34) As the Assembly seems normally to have ratified their decisions without much further discussion, the committees were often dealing with policy as much as its implementation. Greater formality was observed after committee meetings were minuted from 1805. (fn. 35) In the same year the Assembly established a finance committee, also called the city lands committee, chaired by the mayor, which sat more or less continuously until 1835. In pursuit of its initial remit to enquire into the corporation's financial state, it drew up a new rental in 1805-6; thereafter it was largely concerned with routine management of the city's property and with street repairs, (fn. 36) but also made recommendations to the Assembly about financial policy. (fn. 37)
The other forum for day-to-day administration was a regular meeting of the mayor and a few senior aldermen, which had a history stretching back into the early 17th century. (fn. 38) The meetings took place in the inner Pentice until it was demolished in 1803, when they were transferred to the Exchange, though the name of 'inner Pentice' was retained for the meeting until 1816. The mayor almost always attended, the recorder occasionally, and the aldermen in small numbers, rarely more than three or four and often only one. As the mayor was inevitably new to the bench, the presence of an alderman of many years' standing was normal and indeed almost essential. Meetings became more frequent over the period, from once or twice a week in the 1750s, when Saturday was the most common day, to every other day or even daily in the 1810s. (fn. 39)
The inner Pentice functioned in at least two different capacities without differentiating its business. (fn. 40) On the one hand, since the mayor, recorder, and those aldermen who had already been mayor were the city's magistrates, (fn. 41) it served as Chester's petty sessions. As such it heard matters to do with poor-law administration, including settlement and bastardy cases, but also cases of assault, theft, and drunkenness, infringements of the licensing laws, and other minor offences reported by the city's watchmen and constables or by private citizens. By 1835 the J.P.s sat daily as police magistrates, and twice a week as petty sessions, four or five normally attending out of the 15 then qualified. (fn. 42) The inner Pentice also administered corporation business of the most routine sort, such as the admission of freemen and the swearing-in of new Assemblymen, acting as a kind of standing committee. The two functions overlapped when the inner Pentice enforced laws which defended the corporation's interests and practices, such as apprenticeship regulations and the collection of tolls.
The mayor and magistrates also continued to meet in a more private capacity, under the name of the court of aldermen or meeting of magistrates. As such they acted as a steering committee and policy-making body for the Assembly, considering matters which might have been initiated by the Assembly, one of its committees, or the mayor. They minuted their decisions from 1813 and over the following twenty years dealt both with uncontentious business, such as the arrangements for proclaiming George IV's accession, and with topics of great political sensitivity, like docking the salary due to Alderman William Seller, a leading opponent of the Grosvenors. (fn. 43)
Some of the more formal civic traditions were in decline during the later 18th century. The mayor was still attended in public by the swordbearer, carrying the civic sword point up; (fn. 44) lords lieutenant of Ireland passing through Chester in the 1760s were still treated by the corporation; (fn. 45) and there was still an annual civic dinner for which the city cook was paid 10 guineas. (fn. 46) Other observances, however, were allowed to lapse or were ended, (fn. 47) notably the civic bull bait on the mayoral election day, official corporate attendance at the races, (fn. 48) and the mayor's feast, abolished in 1797. (fn. 49) Public days of rejoicing other than the king's birthday were dropped in 1783, (fn. 50) but their place was taken for a time by the large-scale civic celebrations which followed naval victories during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and the peace treaties of 1801 and 1814, and accompanied visits to Chester by war heroes. Thanksgiving day in 1814 was especially lavish: a regatta, dinners, the ringing of the cathedral bells for the first time in sixty years, and a grand procession of almost every organization of consequence in the city, led by the corporation. (fn. 51) The Assembly was also still capable of standing on its dignity in small matters: in 1774 it took offence when the assize judges ordered a thief to be whipped through the streets, contrary to city custom. (fn. 52)
The mayor, as chief magistrate, remained the key figure in the government of Chester before 1835, though the importance of the town clerk was growing steadily, not least in view of his enhanced role in financial administration. (fn. 53) Town clerks were appointed for life by the corporation and acted at one and the same time as clerks to the Assembly, the city courts, the magistrates, and the improvement commission. (fn. 54) In the 1820s the commissioners for the new bridge made the town clerk their solicitor too. (fn. 55) Only five men held the office during the period, two of them for thirty years or more: Thomas Brock 1757-85, William Hall (who had been Brock's deputy for 20 years) 1785-95, George Whitley 1795-9, William Richards 1799-1817, and John Finchett (after 1824 Finchett-Maddock) 1817- 57. (fn. 56) They were all attorneys who also had a private practice in the town. (fn. 57)
Among the elected officers the recorder retained the formal primacy which the office had long enjoyed. He acted as a J.P. and in the portmote and crownmote courts for a salary of £105 a year, (fn. 58) but also informally as a source of legal advice to the Assembly, for which he might be paid additional fees. He was always a barrister of some years' standing, (fn. 59) and had to be an alderman, so that at each vacancy the man chosen was admitted as a freeman (if not one already) and promoted through the rank of councilman. (fn. 60) The recordership had ceased to be politically contentious in the earlier 18th century, (fn. 61) but in the one-party administration of the later 18th century and the early 19th recorders had to be both politically acceptable and well connected locally. Thus the longest serving, Robert Townsend (1754-87), was from a gentry family settled at Christleton just outside the city; (fn. 62) the forebears of Thomas Cowper (1787-8) had held high civic office since the 16th century; (fn. 63) Foster Bower (1788- 95), a brilliant barrister on the Chester circuit, came from a more recent Chester merchant family on his mother's side; (fn. 64) Hugh Leycester (1795-1814) was from a very old Cheshire house; (fn. 65) and the father of David Francis Jones (1814-20) was a Flintshire lawyer settled in the city. (fn. 66) Of those, Leycester was a Tory M.P. and Jones tried to become one. In the early 19th century connexions in Chester were apparently less needed, and the last two recorders elected by the Assembly before 1835 were, by comparison, outsiders: Samuel Yate Benyon (1820-2), a law officer of the duchy of Lancaster, came from a family of Shrewsbury burgesses, (fn. 67) and Richard Tyrwhitt (1822-36) from a dispersed but well connected gentry family also linked to Shropshire. (fn. 68)
The most important of the corporation's ordinary elected offices was the double shrievalty. (fn. 69) Within a few years of appointment to the Assembly it was normal for a councilman to serve as sheriff for a year, usually in order of seniority, (fn. 70) though gentlemen were not expected to take up a position which involved much routine judicial administration. In theory one sheriff was elected by the Assembly and the other by a meeting of the freemen, but in practice it was normal to select the next two most recently appointed councilmen who had not already served. No sheriff ever served more than one term. In 1771, 1804, and regularly after 1809 the second shrievalty was hotly contested between the corporation and its opponents, and several times non-members of the Assembly were elected. (fn. 71) Apart from regular attendance in the city courts and until 1823 management of the gaol, (fn. 72) the sheriffs were required to execute criminals condemned to death anywhere in Cheshire. There were 68 such public executions between 1768 and 1829, of which perhaps only a tenth arose from felonies committed in the city. Hangings (and in 1763 a burning at the stake) (fn. 73) took place at Boughton until 1801 and then at the city gaol. The requirement to conduct county executions was disputed by the sheriffs in 1834 after the abolition of palatine jurisdiction but was reiterated by Act of Parliament in 1835 and remained in force until 1867. (fn. 74)
Other offices filled by members of the Assembly were less demanding. That of leavelooker was normally the first to be undertaken by a new councilman, before serving as sheriff. It was possible to refuse service on payment of a fine set at £50 in 1771. (fn. 75) The duties were confined to collecting the income from tolls at the gates, enforcing the freedom of the city on those who wished to trade, and fining the recalcitrant. Tolls were payable until 1835, but after repeated attempts to enforce entry to the freedom the Assembly gave up trying to collect 'leavelookerage money' in 1816. A decision of the exchequer court of the palatinate in 1825 definitively abolished the right to take such dues. (fn. 76)
The two murengers, who directed the corporation's expenditure on the walls, gates, and streets, continued to be chosen from among the most senior aldermen and normally continued in office in successive years. (fn. 77) The coroners, also two in number, were until 1784 sometimes chosen by the mayor from among fairly junior councilmen and sometimes from new aldermen, and several served for periods of five years or more. After 1784, however, when the office was combined with that of treasurer, it was nearly always held by recently elected aldermen for two years only. The coroners' jurisdiction covered the Dee estuary as well as the city liberties. (fn. 78)
The lesser appointed corporation offices, not held by Assemblymen, were those of swordbearer, macebearer, four serjeants-at-mace, four ministers of the Pentice court, the yeoman of the Pentice, and the crier. At first some were so lucrative because of the income from tolls and other sources as to attract keen bidding when they fell vacant: the office of swordbearer was sold for £682 10s. in 1776 and that of yeoman for £380 in 1779. (fn. 79) By the 1830s, however, the tolls had fallen away and the Assembly had withdrawn most of the traditional perquisites of office, such as the breakfast and dinner provided for the yeoman and other officers every Saturday and Sunday, (fn. 80) and they had become purely salaried positions with mostly ceremonial duties. (fn. 81) The corporation also had on its payroll a dozen or so caretakers, cleaners, market supervisors, and other functionaries, ranging in status from the beadle and the mayor's porter to the winder of the Exchange clock. (fn. 82)
The corporation's finances were notionally entrusted to two treasurers, elected each year from within the Assembly and after 1784 also serving as coroners. It was the rule for the senior coroner and treasurer to act single-handed, his junior operating only as a deputy during any incapacity, and for the junior to succeed as senior coroner and treasurer in the following year. (fn. 83) From 1763, however, the town clerk was made directly responsible for the receipt of all corporation income and the payment of all its expenditure, in effect becoming the city's executive treasurer, paid at the rate of 2½ per cent of its income, raised by 1835 to 5 per cent. Non-routine financial matters remained the responsibility of the senior treasurer. By 1804 the accounts were drawn up entirely by the town clerk's office, though the treasurers were supposed to examine and sign them. (fn. 84)
The biggest of the Assembly's regular sources of income was the rental of its property, which amounted to £1,000 in 1775 and had grown to £1,500 fifty years later, (fn. 85) largely by raising rents after a searching enquiry in 1798. (fn. 86) Within the liberties the corporate estate included shops, houses, and chief rents, besides the Roodee and Hough Green; outside the city there were farms and tithes in Hope and Shordley and land at Iscoyd (all Flints.) and Guilden Sutton. The other large item was income from the markets, which grew from £92 to £527 between 1775 and 1825, and doubled again to over £1,000 after the markets were rebuilt in 1827. Income from tolls at the gates, by contrast, was at best stagnant as it became increasingly difficult to enforce payment. (fn. 87) Those at the Eastgate were in the hands of the macebearer, who paid the corporation £60 or £80 a year for them in the 1760s. (fn. 88) The Watergate tolls came into the city's hands only in the 1770s, but the Northgate had long been in the custody of the sheriffs, (fn. 89) and the Assembly built a new tollkeeper's house there in 1817. (fn. 90) In 1831-2 those three gates brought in less than £80 between them, whereas the Bridgegate tolls had been leased in 1824 at £200 a year to the trustees of the intended new bridge. (fn. 91) Leys on the Roodee were let for £291 in 1775, £460 in 1825, and £388 in 1831.
There were other minor and less reliable sources of income. The corporation's weighing machine in Bridge Street, used mainly by coal merchants, was never very profitable after the River Dee Co. installed its own machine in 1769; the corporation's was moved to the Bars in 1805. (fn. 92) Revenue from the tax on imported wine, the prisage, levied at a flat rate per cargo, grew from £56 in 1775 to £270 in 1825 but plummeted after Liverpool stopped charging duty on wine c. 1830. (fn. 93) The duty on bricks made on corporation-owned waste ground at Hough Green fluctuated greatly though could be as high as £100 a year. Those qualified to become freemen of the city by birth paid £2 12s. and those by apprenticeship £3 12s., but of those sums the corporation received only 3s. 4d. and £1 3s. 4d. respectively, significant sums only when very large numbers of freemen were admitted during a contested parliamentary election. On the other hand, unqualified persons wishing to trade in the city had to pay £10 or £20 to be made freemen, and fifty or sixty might be admitted in a single year. In 1825, however, the corporation's right to insist on unfree traders' taking up the freedom was overturned at law, and fees for admission by purchase ceased. (fn. 94)
The total regular income was £1,678 in 1775 (of which 60 per cent came from rents) and £3,133 in 1825 (50 per cent from rents). Even though many rents ran into arrears after 1780, (fn. 95) it was enough for normal recurrent expenditure, much of which went on salaries and fees to the city's officials and functionaries and on workmen's wages and tradesmen's bills for repairing and maintaining public buildings. It was not enough to pay for any extraordinary item, like the new city gaol and house of correction built in 1808, the market halls put up in the 1820s (both of which cost several thousand pounds), or the heavy legal fees incurred in defending corporate privileges and the Assembly's method of conducting elections. In such circumstances the Assembly resorted to a variety of expedients, nearly always with consequences for its future liquidity. In 1757 it had raised £6,000 by selling annuities under the tontine system, committing itself to relatively modest payments but over a potentially lengthy period: (fn. 96) the last annuitant was still being paid in 1840. (fn. 97) More commonly it borrowed money from the city charities against the security of the corporate estate. The main lender was the Owen Jones charity, whose trustees (not coincidentally) were the mayor and sheriffs: £500 in 1762 to finance a prosecution over the Bridgegate tolls; (fn. 98) £800 in 1799 to cover a shortfall in the accounts after the Assembly had given the government £500 for the war effort; (fn. 99) £1,700 in 1815 for reasons unspecified. (fn. 100) By the 1830s the charity had advanced the corporation £10,640, much of it for purposes which were apparently not recorded. The annual interest charge by then was £425 12s. A further annual payment of £80 to the trustees of the Blue Coat school was believed to represent interest on another loan secured by mortgage, but no record had been kept beyond 'the tradition of the town clerk's office'. (fn. 101) In the mid 1820s the new markets were paid for by allowing tenants who owed chief rents to redeem them and by outright sales of land. (fn. 102) Between 1800 and 1835 at least 96 properties were sold. (fn. 103) There were further complications over the municipal charities, for which separate accounts had never been kept: in some cases the corporation had evidently spent the charity's capital endowment, while remaining liable for annual payments which amounted to some £250; in others it was drawing income from surviving charitable endowments but failing to spend the full revenue on the objects of the charity. (fn. 104) Perhaps because the accounts were known to be irregular they were left unsigned and perhaps unaudited from 1812 until the Municipal Corporations Act loomed in 1834. (fn. 105) In 1835 the corporation hastily put its affairs (though not the charities') in order and balanced its books by selling property, cutting salaries, and economizing even on the cost of the assize judges' lodgings. (fn. 106)
In 1757 all the city parishes, several of which had their own poorhouses, combined in an agreement to send their poor to a new workhouse, to be built at corporation expense in Paradise Row on the north-west side of the Roodee. The new building, three-storeyed and of brick round a central courtyard, was completed in 1759, (fn. 107) and 200 poor were admitted immediately. (fn. 108) A small building for pauper lunatics was added in 1819 and an infants' school in 1823. (fn. 109) The workhouse served the rural townships which belonged to city parishes as well as the city itself, as had earlier parochial arrangements.
Under the Chester Improvement Act of 1762 the workhouse passed under the control of a board of guardians of the poor for the city, who comprised the mayor, recorder, and aldermen J.P.s together with representatives elected by the vestries of the nine parishes: twelve from each of St. John's, St. Mary's, and St. Oswald's; eight from each of St. Peter's, Holy Trinity, St. Bridget's, and St. Michael's; and three from each of St. Martin's and St. Olave's. (fn. 110) By the 1830s members of the corporation seldom attended. (fn. 111) The Assembly at first hoped to save three quarters of what was spent on poor relief, (fn. 112) but the annual cost of running the workhouse reached over £8,000 in the years of worst distress around 1820, apportioned among the parishes in proportion to the number of their poor relieved, so that separate parish poor rates continued to be levied and collected by the churchwardens and overseers of each parish. The Act thus did not, as elsewhere, equalize poor rates across the city. (fn. 113) In the 1830s an outside observer thought the rates 'not very heavy' for a town of Chester's size and condition. (fn. 114) The workhouse also housed the poor of the extra-parochial districts of Abbey Court and St. John's Hospital, who had previously been relieved respectively by the dean and chapter out of the cathedral revenues and by the Assembly out of the income from the hospital, (fn. 115) in both cases without any local overseers or rates. The cathedral precinct remained exempt from poor rates in 1835. (fn. 116)
The 1762 Improvement Act also set up an improvement or police commission for Chester, made up of the mayor, recorder, J.P.s, and six inhabitants from each ward, the last elected by owners and occupiers whose property was rated as worth at least £10 a year. (fn. 117) The commission, which was chaired by the mayor and met in the inner Pentice, set up a night watch, supervised by the ward constables, (fn. 118) and a fire brigade, and took charge of street lighting and cleansing. Its finances came from a rate limited to 1s. in the pound, which was gathered for the commission by the land-tax collectors. (fn. 119)
The improvement commission was remodelled under an Act of 1803, steered through parliament by Chester's M.P.s and the recorder, who was also an M.P. (fn. 120) Thereafter it comprised the mayor, recorder, and J.P.s, the dean and chapter, and 120 named individuals, who were to fill vacancies by co-option. (fn. 121) The usual progression in the method of appointing improvement commissions from co-option to election was thus reversed in Chester's case. (fn. 122) Rates for lighting and policing the city were still limited to 1s. in the pound, with the further restriction that no property was to have a rateable value of more than £70 except for the Dee Mills, which were to be rated as worth £100.
Despite the wide membership of the improvement commission, its direction was in practice left to few hands. Meetings took place about once a month with usually ten or a dozen commissioners present and often chaired by the mayor, (fn. 123) but of the 65 commissioners who attended at least one meeting during 1811, for example, 32 attended only once and 22 only twice or thrice. Meetings in that year were dominated by two aldermen, Rowland Jones and John Wright, attending 16 and 17 times respectively; both men had been mayor in the 1790s and between them had 74 years' experience on the Assembly. (fn. 124)
The new commissioners continued to supervise policing and fire precautions, (fn. 125) but took on other responsibilities as well, notably in the field of civic improvements. They provided lighting in all the main streets, lanes, and Rows from 1804, (fn. 126) began macadamizing the surfaces in 1824, (fn. 127) and ordered the first official street names to be put up in 1830. (fn. 128) At the same time much closer attention was paid both to the cleanliness of the streets and to the removal of obstructions such as frontages projecting from commercial premises and posts in front of private houses, attending even to shop signs, barbers' poles, and bootscrapers. (fn. 129)
For all its activity, by the 1830s the deficiencies of the improvement commission had long been apparent: the maximum rate collectable did not provide enough income to undertake desirable improvements, and the two biggest industrial enterprises in Chester, the leadworks and the Dee Mills, were woefully under-rated because of the cap on rateable values. The loan capital which it was empowered to borrow, only £1,000, was soon spent on rainwater culverts in the main streets, and attempts to obtain a new Act had foundered on a lack of consensus about what was required. (fn. 130)