Modern Colchester: Political history

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.

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A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton, 'Modern Colchester: Political history', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) pp. 208-221. British History Online [accessed 24 May 2024].

A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton. "Modern Colchester: Political history", in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) 208-221. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024,

Baggs, A P. Board, Beryl. Crummy, Philip. Dove, Claude. Durgan, Shirley. Goose, N R. Pugh, R B. Studd, Pamela. Thornton, C C. "Modern Colchester: Political history", A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994). 208-221. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024,

In this section


The Reformed Borough 1835-92

National politics, as manifested in movements like Chartism and events like the repeal of the corn laws, affected politics in Colchester, but local circumstances, such as the strength of religious nonconformity and the lack of industry in the town, were more influential. The earlier part of the period saw the adjustment locally to a new reformed system of borough government and poor relief imposed by central government legislation. (fn. 1)

Under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 the new corporation comprised a mayor, elected annually by the council; six aldermen, three of whom were elected triennially in rotation by the council; and 18 councillors, six of whom retired annually, directly elected by ratepaying householders. The borough was divided into three electoral wards, each represented by six councillors. The corporation was allowed to retain a separate borough quarter sessions administered by eight justices with a recorder, and continued to maintain the borough gaol. (fn. 2) The borough lawhundred and foreign (Monday and Thursday) courts were in abeyance from 1878 and were abolished in 1972. (fn. 3)

In the first borough council election under the Act, in 1835, the Reformers or Liberals gained a narrow majority, of ten to eight, which they increased by electing six Liberal aldermen, and appointing Liberals as mayor, town clerk, chamberlain, treasurer, and town serjeants in place of the previous Tory or Conservative incumbents; their nominees were also appointed as J.P.s, clerk of the peace, and coroner. (fn. 4) The new council apparently met in camera until March 1836, but publicly in the moot hall thereafter, holding frequent special meetings in addition to quarterly ones. (fn. 5)

The new corporation, like its predecessor, had only limited powers; it administered markets, fairs, and borough charities, maintained the North, East, and Hythe bridges, managed its properties comprising the Severalls and the Chantry lands, and selected scholars for the town grammar school. (fn. 6) It still owned the fishery but had little control over it. (fn. 7) A borough police force was set up in 1836. Other important local government functions were performed by other statutory bodies: the board of guardians, composed of one or two guardians elected from each of the 16 parishes in the union together with the J.P.s ex officio, administered the poor law subject to central government control, and the autonomous improvement commissioners were responsible for streets, drainage, lighting, the investigation of nuisances, and the maintenance of the navigation on the Colne. The town parishes retained little more than their ecclesiastical functions. Education was left to religious and other organizations. (fn. 8)

The main problem in 1835 was the £10,000 mortgage on the Severalls taken out by the new corporation's forerunners, the unreformed corporation, to cover debts. Committees were appointed to investigate the accounts for 1834 and 1835 and the corporation's current assets. The accounts could not be passed because £600 raised from the sale of a granary and wharf at the Hythe had been spent illegally, mainly by Francis Smythies on dinners and wine, and on resisting the Municipal Corporations Bill. The borough charities of Lady Judd, Sir Thomas White, John Hunwick, Thomas Ingram, and William Turner had been lost. Nine tenths of the outstanding debt of £1,810 incurred by the previous administration in 1834-5 were unacceptable; the debts and running costs since then totalled £2,781, including £450 for providing five new cells at the borough gaol. The Severalls estate, though probably undervalued at c. £950 a year gross, was the largest source of income and was in a generally good condition, but total annual income from the fishery, all the other estates, and market tolls was only c. £1,550, clearly insufficient to pay off the debt, especially as interest of £450 a year was paid on the mortgage of the Severalls.

In January 1837 the corporation levied a rate of 9d. on a rateable value of £19,058, but it lacked powers to raise rates for expenses already incurred. Application was made to the Treasury for permission to sell the borough estates to finance running costs and build a new town hall besides paying off debts, but only the sale of enough land to pay off debts was permitted. By October £2,648 had been raised from sales of 45 portions of the Severalls estate.

In November 1837 electors, lacking confidence in the Liberal council's ability to put the borough finances on a secure footing and perhaps fearful of the fierce opposition of some Liberal nonconformists to church rates, returned a Conservative majority, who promptly reappointed their own supporters to some of the key borough offices. (fn. 9) The corporation reduced the interest on the Severalls mortgage, and raised a rate of 6d. on a reassessed rateable value of almost £45,000, thus managing to balance the accounts, while accepting the necessity of continuing to carry the burden of mortgage debt. The income from the sale of more of the Severalls estate in 1840 was used to restore Sir Thomas White's charity, and that from further sales in 1842, with money raised by public subscription, financed the new town hall opened in 1845.

While the reformed system of local government was being established in the borough, the Chartist movement for radical parliamentary reforms, including universal suffrage, presented a potential threat to law and order nationally; in Colchester, however, the relatively few Chartists were essentially moderate and cautious. The Colchester Working Men's Association formed in 1838 was led by craftsmen and small traders; prominent among them was William Wire, watchmaker and antiquarian, who argued for the use of moral not physical force. Many Chartists were nonconformists and in 1838 were allied with campaigns for the abolition of church rates and for church disestablishment. The local impact of Chartism was small, but it may have encouraged those who feared its consequences to devote more of their resources to charitable giving and religious and educational work as ways of countering its influence among the poorer classes. In the 1840s former Chartists often united with the radical Liberals to oppose the corn laws, which were supported by the 'protectionist' Conservatives, and, after repeal, to promote the later parliamentary reform bills; others became involved with trade unions, and John Castle founded the Colchester Co-operative Society in 1861. (fn. 10)

The pattern of parliamentary representation in the period from 1835 to 1852 seemed affected more by local than national factors. (fn. 11) Colchester was one of only three boroughs (the others being Aylesbury and Grantham) out of 189 whose voting showed a shift to the right after parliamentary reform in 1832. The Conservatives, whose party organization through parliamentary clubs was superior to the Liberals', held both of the town's seats, except for the period 1847-50 when the Liberal J. A. Hardcastle held one seat. (fn. 12) Local newspapers, with their declared party biases, particularly the Conservative Essex Standard, and pamphlets and handbills exercised considerable influence. (fn. 13) Direct bribery was not widespread, voters being more affected by other pressures, and by 1852 appears to have diminished. (fn. 14) The newly enfranchised £10 householders in Colchester, unlike those in industrialized parts of the country, included many tradesmen dependent on the economy of the surrounding agricultural area. Conservative voting was encouraged by the identification of that party with agricultural interests and by the apparent incompetence of the Liberal-controlled borough council of 1835-7. In addition the Conservative Sir G. H. Smyth of Berechurch hall, M.P. 1835-50, was popular and noted for his anti-Roman Catholicism, and the Conservative Richard Sanderson, M.P. 1832-47, was a generous local benefactor. (fn. 15) Both men successfully promoted the Stour Valley Railway Act and the Navigation Act, which were beneficial to the town. (fn. 16) Voters who consistently supported the Liberal party were usually staunch nonconformists, but Wesleyans were divided between the two political parties. (fn. 17)

Local party politics were based on national parties. Conservative majorities were returned continuously in borough elections between late 1837 and 1879, not always large but enough to keep control of the council and to invest it with a legitimacy lacking before 1835. In 1847, following Hardcastle's parliamentary victory, the Liberals gained five seats on the borough council, but their success was shortlived and the Conservatives continued to dominate municipal politics until 1867. (fn. 18)

The corporation was still in the 1860s playing only a limited part in local government, content to leave important matters like drainage and sewerage to the improvement commissioners. Water and gas were supplied by private companies and a fire brigade was provided by the Essex & Suffolk Equitable insurance society. A burial board, set up in 1854, opened a cemetery in 1856. (fn. 19) Income from rates was £879 in 1854-5, which was only 25 per cent of total receipts of £3,482, compared with Ipswich's rateable income of £3,014, 40 per cent of a total of £7,591. (fn. 20) In 1863 the corporation paid for a new cattle market by taking out a further mortgage on borough property. (fn. 21)

The achievements of the improvement commissioners in the 19th-century town were considerable. Under an Act of 1847 which granted permissive powers to intervene on public health grounds, they undertook substantial drainage and sewerage work. The board's constitution was altered by the Act: previously all ratepayers of more than £50 a year had been eligible to be commissioners; from 1847 £30 male ratepayers and owners of land adjoining the river elected annually from among their number 24 commissioners with power to appoint committees, make bylaws, levy rates, and borrow money. (fn. 22) Between 1856 and 1885 there were c. 250 electors, and three to six of the 24 commissioners at any one time were shipowners. J. B. Harvey, a Liberal nonconformist prominent in a wide range of local activities and member of the borough council 1847-90, was an active commissioner from 1848 and chairman from 1860. Members often had vested interests which might seem to threaten their impartiality, as in 1866 when six commissioners were connected with the gas company with which the board had a contract. (fn. 23)

Most council members of both parties were merchants and traders, or professional men; a few were gentlemen of private means; many had family or business connexions with other members or officials, and prominent men often served on other bodies. Of the 24 council members seven in 1857 and nine in 1865 were also improvement commissioners. Charles H. Hawkins, borough councillor 1844-89, mayor four times, poor-law guardian, improvement commissioner, and leader of Colchester Conservative party, illustrates the power of a local family network: he was the son of William, a council member, son-in-law of John Bawtree, a prominent citizen, and younger brother and business partner of William Warwick Hawkins M.P., who was himself the son-in-law of Francis Smythies the elder, a former town clerk. (fn. 24) Successful local businessmen who served on the council included Thomas Moy, a coal merchant, who was mayor 1877-9, and Alfred Francis, a corn merchant, who died in 1884 during his mayoralty. (fn. 25)

Nonconformity was strong in the town, and the Independents or Congregationalists were particularly allied with the Liberal cause against the privileges of the established church, which was often aligned with Conservative interests. In 1861 after a Liberal councillor's objections to Conservative domination of the mayoralty from 1837, the new Conservative mayor promised to discharge his duties apolitically. Many local Liberals were able to overcome their frustration at being effectively excluded from council decision-making by being involved in public activities outside the borough council, as improvement commissioners, members of the gas company, educational reformers, or poor-law guardians. Party politics were not absent from other bodies. James Wicks, after his election to the board of guardians in 1869, fought successfully on behalf of the Liberals for the press to be admitted to the board's meetings. (fn. 26)

The freemen were insignificant in town government after 1835, when the municipal franchise was extended to all £10 ratepayers, their numbers on the parliamentary electoral register declining from 413 in 1835 to 323 in 1891. (fn. 27) A few of them, however, in attempting to defend their allegedly disappearing rights, occupied much of the council's time and money in repeated litigation. (fn. 28)

In parliamentary elections the freemen's influence steadily declined as the parliamentary franchise was extended. After the second Reform Act (1867) the total registered electorate was 2,970, equivalent to about an eighth of the town's population. The Liberals benefited, winning both seats in 1868. Electioneering brought some excitement to the community and participation was not for the faint-hearted: at the hustings in 1868 at one point 'a volley of stinking eggs' was thrown at Dr. W. Brewer, one of the Liberal candidates. Colchester's only longstanding Liberal M.P. during the 19th century was J. Gurdon Rebow, M.P. 1857-9 and 1865-70. (fn. 29) The 1868 election marked a turning point, Rebow being the last truly local candidate. Afterwards general election campaigns became increasingly preoccupied with national rather than local issues, with national parties rather than with local personalities. At the byelection on Rebow's death in 1870 the Liberal government's candidate was Gen. Sir Henry Storks, a strong supporter of the controversial Contagious Diseases Acts, which provided for compulsory inspection and medical treatment of prostitutes in garrison towns, including Colchester. Opponents of the legislation, including Josephine Butler, supported a rival Liberal candidate, Dr. B. Langley, and used the election in their campaign for repeal. Langley withdrew on election day, and the Conservative, Col. A. Learmonth of Edinburgh, won convincingly. The Liberal defectors, however, were those least committed to active Liberalism and nonconformity; the committed remained loyal to party rather than to a particular moral issue. (fn. 30)

The Conservative vote was maintained in the 1870s as Colchester continued to function as a market town for the surrounding agricultural area; the growing military presence at the garrison added to Conservative support. As local Liberalism began to strengthen, (fn. 31) however, two Liberal M.P.s, the moderate R. K. Causton, a wealthy sportsman and amateur photographer, and the radical W. Willis, a barrister whose father had been a straw hat maker, were returned in 1880 in a very close result. (fn. 32) Agricultural depression and the coming of industry from the 1880s helped the Liberal cause in the longer term, and after 1886 class divisions became increasingly significant in parliamentary campaigns. In 1885, after the third Reform Act (1884) had deprived Colchester of one of its two parliamentary seats, the Conservative, H. J. Trotter, a landowner from County Durham, won the single seat. (fn. 33) He retained it in 1886 when some leading members of the local Liberal party joined the Liberal Unionists on the Liberal split over Irish home rule. Elections still roused strong passions, and a disagreement between some rival party supporters in 1886 led to a fight in which 'some of the combatants received severe blows, the blood flowing freely' and a crowd of 200 to 300 people gathered. (fn. 34) In 1887 the revised electoral roll was composed of 4,048 householders, 355 freemen, and 17 lodgers. At the byelection in 1888, following Trotter's death in a hunting accident, the seat was won by F. R. G. Greville of Easton Lodge, Little Easton, then known as Lord Brooke, the son of the 4th earl of Warwick, whose wife Frances became well known in county and national society, but he took little interest in parliamentary matters. (fn. 35) The Conservatives held the seat in 1892, but with a new candidate, Capt. H. S. Naylor-Leyland, of the Life Guards, who had a much reduced majority. (fn. 36)

The role of the corporation started to change significantly from the 1870s as legislation forced local councils to adopt more interventionist policies. The 1848 Public Health Act had never been adopted in Colchester because public health responsibilities were shared between the borough council and the improvement commissioners, but in 1874 the commissioners surrendered to the council all their powers except those relating to the river, which was improved extensively in the 1880s. (fn. 37) The corporation in 1874 appointed an inspector of nuisances and formed a council sanitary committee to deal with water supply, sewerage and drainage, and the improvement, repair, cleaning, and lighting of streets. Colchester was one of the three healthiest towns in England in 1879, but the sanitary inspector's graphic reports of prevailing conditions in the poorer parts of the town show that even in one of the more salubrious towns like Colchester public health advances were not achieved quickly. In 1880 the inspector shrank from visiting many filthy and squalid places which lacked proper sanitation or even a water supply. Poor families with no facilities for isolation regularly suffered avoidable and often fatal illnesses. (fn. 38)

The corporation bought the water company in 1880 and in 1883 built the controversial water tower known as Jumbo in its efforts to extend the water supply. In 1884 a sewage works was built at the Hythe and a borough isolation hospital opened at Mile End. The council gradually widened its range of municipal activities: a town museum had been established by 1861; an additional volunteer fire brigade formed in 1878 was supervised by the borough chief constable; a scale of cab fares was set in 1880. An open-air public bathing place was provided in 1883, a recreation ground in 1885, and the Castle Park in 1892. The Public Libraries Act was adopted in 1891. (fn. 39) In 1890 some of the borough farms had to be relet at reduced rents because of agricultural depression, but by then regular rates set twice a year on an increasing rateable value had placed borough finances on a more secure footing. In 1892-3 total council expenditure was c. £40,000 when a rate of 4s. 6¼d. was fixed on the rateable value of £116,318. (fn. 40)

The Conservative majority on the corporation was overturned only in 1879, by which time most of the improvement commissioners' duties had been transferred to the council. The Liberals then appointed a Liberal mayor and reappointed as town clerk J. B. Philbrick who had held the office 1835-37. In 1880 J. B. Harvey was the first Liberal alderman elected for 40 years, the Conservatives having opposed his nomination on four previous occasions, for fear of losing their majority. The Liberals retained power into the 20th century, except in 1884-5 when the Conservatives gained a majority mainly because of the electorate's dislike of the high rate caused by the Liberals' public works, notably in their water policy. James Wicks, the vociferous champion of the purchase of the waterworks, lost his seat on the council to the delight of his opponents, but was re-elected the following year and later relaxed his combative style enough to become mayor in 1895-6. (fn. 41)

From 1880 until 1904 was a period of consensus town politics, with the two parties agreeing not to contest elections; the mayoralty alternated on a party basis, the mayor remaining aloof from party politics during his year of office. A ratepayers' association was formed by some citizens who feared the potential results of such electoral pacts, and although the association had minimal success electorally it provided a forum for airing grievances. The Co-operative society also fielded at least one unsuccessful candidate. (fn. 42)

Council meetings had been held only quarterly as late as 1871, but by 1881, with an increasing workload, there were often two a month. The number of committees increased from only two in mid century to 12 in 1880 and 16 in 1890. (fn. 43) In 1891 there were 5,135 municipal voters (c. 15 per cent of the population). (fn. 44) The existing constitution of the council needed modification to enable the corporation to cope more efficiently with the demands of an increased population and a much wider range of municipal responsibilities.

Civic ceremonies, such as the annual opening of the oyster fishery, the proclamation of St. Dennis's fair, and the oyster feast, were continued after 1835. In 1838, to celebrate Queen Victoria's coronation, public subscriptions were invited to provide meat and money in the parishes and dinners in the workhouse and gaol. Food tickets were distributed in 1856 to mark the end of the Crimean war, and a public dinner was held at the corn exchange for c. 170 soldiers. It was the celebration of the Prince of Wales's marriage in 1863, however, which seemed to change the style of official festivities, aided no doubt by the military presence in the town. As well as the usual food provisions, there were processions, bands, sports, a military review, fireworks, and a bonfire, all setting a pattern for Queen Victoria's golden jubilee in 1887 and later occasions. (fn. 45) The oyster feast developed from a private and exclusive meal to a grand occasion promoting civic pride with important national figures as guests. Everything was designed to bear witness to Colchester's municipal progress in the 19th century, for which the borough council could claim increasing credit. (fn. 46)

A Century of Change 1892-1991

Local government in the period was concentrated in the borough council, whose power was at its height immediately before the First World War. Thereafter, although the council's functions continued to grow, it was increasingly subject to directives and dependent on grants and loans from the central government. Essex county council, created in 1889 to provide certain services for the county as a whole, came to play a more important role. It was responsible for Colchester's secondary and higher education from 1903, and took over the borough library in 1924 and poor-relief administration from the guardians in 1929. (fn. 47) The 16 parishes in the borough, which retained few civil functions, were amalgamated in 1897 to create one unified civil parish. (fn. 48)

In the 20th century political developments in the town were much more closely entwined than previously with those in the nation as a whole: the adoption of more interventionist policies at central and local level, the growth of the Labour party, and the participation of women through the ballot box and to a limited extent as elected representatives. By 1884 the municipal electorate included 600 women, and from the 1890s women were more directly involved in public affairs at a local level. The Colchester Women's Liberal Association, founded in 1892, was the most active in pursuing women's rights, particularly women's suffrage, but women of various political persuasions, including Conservatives, together formed the Colchester branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. (fn. 49) In 1895 Sir Weetman Pearson, a wealthy oil contractor, won the parliamentary seat for the Liberals. He retained it at subsequent elections until he was raised to the peerage as Lord Cowdray in 1910; created a viscount in 1917, he was high steward of Colchester 1910-27 and a generous benefactor to the town. L. Worthington Evans won for the Conservatives in 1910. (fn. 50) He retained the seat in 1919 when he stood as a Coalitionist against a Labour candidate. As a member of the Cabinet he was reputed to have the loudest voice there 'if not in the House'. (fn. 51) In 1918 the borough had been merged with most of Lexden and Winstree rural district to form a new constituency of which the former Colchester constituency comprised two thirds. (fn. 52)

To take account of population growth and the borough council's wider range of functions the number of its members was increased from 24 to 32 in 1892. The municipal wards were redrawn within the borough boundaries to revert from the three existing wards created in 1835 to the four which had existed in the 18th century, north, south, east, and west, each represented by six councillors and two aldermen. At the same time the council's power was augmented by the transfer from the improvement commissioners of responsibility for the Colne navigation, for which the council set up a new harbour and navigation committee. (fn. 53) The council remained responsible for its estate, police force, sanitation, roads and drainage, water supply, street lighting, cattle market, museum and muniments, Castle park, recreation ground, public bathing places, and footpaths, and for the implementation of Acts of Parliament relating to the borough. It strengthened its control of the fishery, and also continued to select scholars for the town grammar school. A school board was formed in 1892 at the council's request. (fn. 54)

In the period up to the First World War the corporation further extended its functions, opening the public library in 1893, establishing a corporation fire brigade in 1896, taking over the work of the burial board in 1896 and the school board's responsibility for elementary education in 1903, and providing allotments for the working classes from 1893, an electricity supply from 1898, and a tram service from 1904. A new town hall was opened in 1902, a symbol of municipal pride and progress, though at first the plans had been vociferously opposed by the Ratepayers' Association. Under a new scheme for the grammar school in 1909 the mayor was ex officio chairman of governors. The river was improved and King Edward quay built between 1910 and 1912. As road traffic increased, road improvements and road safety became of greater concern to the corporation. (fn. 55)

There were inevitably areas of conflict where the borough council's interests clashed with those of the county. In 1894 the county council accepted responsibility for only 20 of the 80 miles of main roads in the borough, a source of great dissatisfaction to Colchester corporation. (fn. 56) The county's high expenditure was resented locally by those who associated it too readily with spending on the needs of metropolitan Essex.

The poor-law guardians retained responsibility for poor relief in the early 20th century, but in times of economic depression the borough council was strongly represented in ad hoc schemes to give emergency outdoor relief. For example, in 1894 a central committee composed of the mayor, some councillors, and clergymen was formed to raise money for issuing 1s. tickets for food, fuel, and other necessities. The problem of unemployment was already on a scale beyond the guardians' resources before 1914, and the council provided temporary jobs on public work schemes on many occasions, as in 1908 when some men were employed to dig sewers for the new county asylum, preference being given to married men with families. Some underlying tension between the guardians, probably anxious about their own declining influence, and the corporation surfaced in the guardians' displeasure at receiving no invitation to the official service held by the corporation on King Edward VII's death in 1910. (fn. 57)

Gas remained in private ownership, despite the borough council's wish to take over the undertaking and its unsuccessful attempt in 1916, supported by the county council and Lexden and Winstree rural district council, to oppose the gas company's bill to increase its powers. Council members who had a pecuniary interest in the gas company were not allowed to vote on the issue; some were sympathetic to the council's view that the company had passed on excess profits to shareholders instead of reducing the price of gas, but Alderman Henry Laver, chairman of the gas company was not among them. (fn. 58)

In the period from 1892 to 1914 decisions on how far to adopt interventionist local policies, in the acquisition, for example, of public utilities or in housing, remained to a large extent in the borough council's own hands. Provided that municipal ownership of water or electricity or the fishery could show a profit, as each did in the early 20th century, any laissez-faire opposition was effectively silenced. The failure of the tramways to make a profit except in wartime led to more radical questions of whether the council should go so far as to subsidize certain public services. Early housing policies raised similar ideological issues. The council was statutorily required from 1890 (fn. 59) to clear slums, but powers to provide working-class houses to replace them were permissive and no council houses were built in Colchester before the First World War.

Local government responsibilities were increased during the First World War by central government direction and control. In 1915 the borough council appointed a local tribunal composed of representatives of the army, the council, and labour to supervise military recruitment and hear appeals. (fn. 60) The council provided additional temporary buildings at the Infectious Diseases hospital, took over the voluntary maternity centre, set up a war loan scheme, introduced special 1d. tram fares for troops, provided communal kitchens in the New Town area, tried to regulate and conserve fuel supplies, supervised food rationing, and provided allotments for food cultivation with, in 1918, at least 25 pigs. Wartime economies included the reduction of lighting, the postponement of major road and harbour improvement schemes, and the purchase of coal in advance at summer prices. As more men enlisted, the council increasingly employed women, including 14 as tram conductresses by 1916. (fn. 61) In 1917 there were 640 council employees of whom 230 were women; only 84 of the men were of military age. A special salaries committee was set up to deal with frequent claims for higher wages and salaries to meet rising prices. (fn. 62)

Between the two world wars the borough council extended its functions even further, but its autonomy in policy-making and finance was further eroded by central legislation. The sewerage and the electricity and water supplies were improved, and further work was done on the harbour. Buses replaced the trams in 1928-9 but proved no more profitable than their predecessors. Improvements were made to roads, and a bypass was constructed between 1930 and 1933, partly funded by central government as a relief scheme for the unemployed. The cemetery was enlarged in 1937 and a new fire station opened in 1938. Facilities for sport and recreation were also extended. (fn. 63)

Colchester built no council houses until 1921, although Chelmsford had a scheme before 1914. (fn. 64) The council appointed a housing committee in 1919, which included representatives of working people. Between 1921 and 1939, with the aid of central government subsidies, 1,242 council houses, representing about a third of all new houses, were built at Mile End, Lexden, Old Heath, Shrub End, between the Harwich and Ipswich roads, and near the new bypass road. Each scheme generated a welcome, though limited and temporary, demand for builders and labourers at a time of high unemployment. The council increasingly employed direct labour and in 1936 established a housing department. (fn. 65)

To cope with its increasing functions the council was enlarged in 1937 from 32 to 36 members, and the borough rearranged into 9 new wards, each represented by three elected councillors, of whom one would retire each year, and by one alderman chosen by the council; existing members were assigned to the new wards. The size of the municipal electorate had increased from 4,786 in 1892 to more than 24,000. (fn. 66) The administration of municipal services entailed a considerable increase in borough council staff. The advice of salaried chief officers as professional experts was welcomed by council members faced with the complexity of 20th-century decision-making. In 1924 the mayor publicly thanked the borough accountant for his 'kind and efficient' help which had saved the council hundreds of pounds, much more than the cost of his salary. (fn. 67) Four loyal officers retired in 1926: the town clerk had served for over 40 years, the borough librarian for 30, the superintendant of the waterworks for 46, and the museum curator for 24. (fn. 68)

A special committee set up in 1935 took precautions against air raid and fire in 1938-9. On the outbreak of war in 1939 food and fuel committees were appointed and the opening of a new town library was suspended. During the war council housebuilding and other schemes were halted. The council was subjected to even more central government regulation than in the previous war, notably in civil defence, evacuation, and rationing. In 1941 the borough fire service was transferred to central government. (fn. 69) The council provided a war-time nursery in Brook Street in 1942, to help women to contribute to the war effort in the local factories. A special committee was established in 1944, to consider post-war reconstruction and development, particularly in housing. (fn. 70)

Rates continued to be an important source of council income between 1892 and 1945, and the rateable value of the town steadily increased to £193,486 in 1913-14. (fn. 71) In 1897 of an income of £45,000 the rates contributed £28,000; the rest was derived from central government and county council grants, and the borough fishery, estates, and markets. Colchester's total borough rate was only slightly above the average of 63 towns in 1898, but the elements within it for the school board and for poor relief, which were out of the council's control, were significantly above average. (fn. 72) Expenditure gradually increased as the council provided more services. The rate rose to 7s. 4d. in 1913, doubled after the war, and was more than 18s. from 1921 until 1929 when the administration of poor relief passed from the board of guardians to the county council; the borough was revalued in 1929 at £271,960 and the overall rate fell from 19s. 4d. to 14s. (fn. 73) By 1938-9 the rateable value had increased to £344,857, and a rate of 14s. 8d. raised £237,828, but by then rateable income was less than half of the total borough income, and central government grants financed over half of total expenditure; loans outstanding at the end of the year amounted to £2,185,947. (fn. 74)

At the end of the 19th century trading and professional interests still predominated in the council chamber, though new industrialists like James Paxman, John Kavanagh, Wilson Marriage, and John Knopp were becoming influential. (fn. 75) In the first half of the 20th century the pattern was slightly modified as early Labour councillors were mainly drawn from trade union and working class backgrounds. Family connexions and freemasonry continued to provide useful introductions to civic life, and such features continued into the 20th century. A few women had been regularly appointed as guardians from 1893 and co-opted to the education committee from 1903, but there were no female councillors until Mrs. C. B. Alderton, Liberal, and Mrs. P. R. Green, Labour, were co-opted in 1918, although women were eligible to serve from 1907. (fn. 76) Apart from them there were only a few other female members by 1945, notably Dame Catherine Hunt, Conservative, and Dr. Ruth Bensusan-Butt, Labour. (fn. 77) Nonconformist chapels, particularly Lion Walk Congregational, continued to supply a number of councillors. F. E. Macdonald Docker, champion of the unemployed, Labour councillor, and minister of Stockwell Street Congregational church, was mayor 1935-6, the first clergymen to serve that office. (fn. 78) Denominational differences became less significant in the 20th century, and party considerations dominated local politics, though to a lesser extent during the two World Wars. The Conservative P. A. Sanders served as a capable wartime mayor for an unprecedented four years, 1939-43, though the Labour councillors objected to forgoing their turn to nominate one of their own group. (fn. 79)

Between 1892 and 1904 the previous pattern of contrived political agreement by the Liberals and Conservatives continued, both party groups content to perpetuate their own existence; ward elections were contested again in 1904. The Liberals had a majority on the council until 1907, and 12 of them were accused of belonging to a secret dining club where they forged municipal schemes. (fn. 80) Thereafter the Liberal decline was mirrored by the steady rise of the labour movement. The first representative of the working classes was John Howe; associated with Chartism in his early life, he was elected as a Liberal in 1894, and pressed unsuccessfully for evening council meetings instead of the daytime ones which effectively excluded most working men from standing for election; as a poor-law guardian, he objected to the use of workhouse children as cheap labour in the gardens of the wealthy. (fn. 81) A branch of the Independent Labour Party had been formed by 1894, but that initially divided the labour movement, some members of which saw the Liberal party as their best advocate. Both the trades council, founded in 1891, and the I.L.P. had been dissolved by 1900, but both had revived by 1905, and one I.L.P. councillor, T. Smith, was elected before 1914. (fn. 82)

No elections were held during the First World War, vacancies being filled by co-option. Three Labour candidates were returned in the 1919 council election. Some local Liberals were uneasy at the rise of the Labour party: Asher Prior, a staunch Liberal, voted against the Labour candidate in parliamentary elections; E. A. Blaxill, a Liberal alderman, became a Conservative. (fn. 83) Between the wars none of the three parties had a majority in the council. The Labour party fought hard to secure their fair representation in the offices of mayor and aldermen, as the Liberals had done before them in 1879-80. T. Smith had to wait until 1928 to become the first Labour alderman on grounds of seniority. C. C. Smallwood had already been elected the first Labour mayor in 1926, after which the mayoralty passed to each party in turn until 1933. (fn. 84) Thereafter a special mayoralty committee composed of the mayor and previous mayors was set up to make a 'non-political' nomination each year. Although Labour feared that such a scheme would militate against their interests, mayors were still elected by 'gentlemen's agreement' from each of the three parties in turn. Council elections were suspended again during the Second World War. Party allegiances were firmly held, but personal antagonism was generally absent.

Political events between the wars in Colchester were less dramatic than in some other parts of the country. In May 1926 in the General Strike the Home Office appointed an emergency food officer, all units at the garrison were put on standby, and 30 special constables were sworn in. Some tramworkers, the railwaymen, and some union men at the local engineering works struck for just over a week, but 'for the most part the community went its way in a half-hearted manner'. An orderly demonstration on St. John's Green attended by 2,000-3,000 strikers was addressed by the Labour councillor T. Smith, chairman of the local strike committee, and by Clement Attlee, M.P. for Limehouse, London, the later prime minister. (fn. 85)

A Fascist meeting was held at the Albert Hall in 1934, and Fascist blackshirts had a small local headquarters in St. John's Street c. 1935. (fn. 86) The borough council, some members dissenting, allowed a Fascist meeting to be held in Castle park in 1935; several hundreds attended but there was no disturbance. (fn. 87) Sir Oswald Moseley, the Fascist leader, addressed an orderly meeting at the moot hall in 1936, but afterwards had to be escorted by police through a noisy crowd of supporters and opponents outside. (fn. 88) No support for fascism, nor for communism, was voiced in the council chamber, where moderation was the preferred style.

Between 1945 and 1950 the Labour party was in control of the borough council, but thereafter the Conservatives dominated until 1974. After 1945 councillors were drawn from a very wide range of social backgrounds, and party alignments became even more significant. The borough council's functions were further eroded. The borough police force was merged with Essex county police in 1947, and in 1948 electricity was nationalized and the borough infectious diseases hospital was transferred to the National Health Service. Borough control of the water supply was shared with neighbouring councils in 1960 when the Colchester and District Water Board was established. (fn. 89)

Housing needs were the most urgent problem in the period of post-war reconstruction, and 590 council houses were built between 1945 and 1949, many of them on the Barn Hall estate between the Old Heath and Mersea roads. (fn. 90) Between 1953 and 1958 the council finished building the Shrub End estate, developed housing at Prettygate with a private firm, and built houses at Monkwick, besides completing minor infilling schemes. (fn. 91) The town clerk successfully resisted the use of Greenstead for housing London overspill, and instead nine phases of council housing were built there for local people before 1974. Purpose-built homes for the elderly were provided from 1968. (fn. 92)

Such developments, coupled with the simultaneous private housing development in the borough, necessarily greatly increased council expenditure on sewerage, roads, and other services. More attention was gradually given to amenities and appearance. In the 1950s the council restored c. 50 buildings in the 'Dutch Quarter' to house elderly people. (fn. 93) A new central library was opened in Shewell Road in 1948. (fn. 94) After the war the county council had taken responsibility for all schools in the borough, but in 1964, after a struggle, the borough council was able to appoint its own education officer to administer the schools in the borough, an arrangement which lasted until 1974 when education reverted to the county council. (fn. 95)

Until the later 20th century patriotism was much in evidence in civic ceremonial, reinforced, particularly in wartime, by the participation of the garrison, with which the council's relationship was very good. The mayor and corporation in state bade farewell to departing troops and provided receptions on their return. In 1899 E. J. Sanders, the Conservative mayor, managed to revive, or institute, the observance of St. George's Day, though not everyone shared his enthusiasm. It came to be marked by a civic and military procession to a church service, the wearing of roses by council employees, and band music in the Castle park, though after the First World War only the church service remained. The mayor continued to open the fishery formally every year and proclaim St. Dennis's fair, and council members attended the friendly societies' annual parade. It was the mayor's oyster feast, however, which was the most prestigious, and expensive, event in the civic calendar. Reported extensively in the local and national press, it was considered an effective way of promoting Colchester's municipal achievements. Guests included the duke of York (later George VI) in 1924 and the Prince of Wales in 1931, among a succession of the political, religious, and military leaders of the nation. Invitations were extended even more widely in the 1930s to include prominent figures from the arts and sport, and after the Second World War the entertainment industry was well represented. (fn. 96) In the early 20th century the mayor and corporation still played a leading role in local celebrations of royal and other national events. (fn. 97) Civic and national pride were entwined, but loyalty to monarch and country may have been felt more strongly than civic pride by many citizens, and others may have felt that party and class divisions were more significant than either.

Under local government reorganization in 1974 (fn. 98) Colchester borough was merged with West Mersea urban district, Wivenhoe urban district, and Lexden and Winstree rural district to form Colchester district. The new district council had 60 members. Borough status was granted and a mayor permitted as head of council; at the council's discretion the courtesy title of honorary alderman could be conferred on former councillors of eminent service who would then be entitled to participate in formal occasions only. (fn. 99) Rural interests from the area beyond the ancient borough were prominent in the new council. Power was shared between the main parties from 1974 to 1976. Thereafter there was a Conservative majority until 1987 when a minority administration was formed by the Social and Liberal Democrats. (fn. 100) That party, renamed Liberal Democrats, was still in control in 1991. (fn. 101)

The administration of river works, water supply, and sewerage was transferred to the Anglian Water Authority in 1974. The borough bus company was privatized in 1986. More leisure facilities were provided, and tourism promoted. (fn. 102) By 1973-4 the borough's rateable value had increased to £9,276,558. By then just over a third of total income was derived from rates, a small proportion from charges for council services, and most from central government grants. (fn. 103) The role of local government at borough level became less important in the later 20th century, particularly after 1974. The complexity of local government administration and constant change resulted in more decisions being made by paid chief officers than by elected representatives. (fn. 104)


  • 1. Section based on E.R.O., Boro. Mun., G/CoM 1-16; ibid. Improvement Com. Mins. 1833-63 and Spec. Cttees. Mins.; ibid. Boro. Council Mins. 1835-45 and Spec. Cttees. Mins. 1874-92; ibid. Acc. C4, Boro. Council newspaper cuttings, 1884-92.
  • 2. 5 & 6 Wm. IV, c. 76; Lond. Gaz. 7 Dec. 1835, p. 2324; E.R.O., Boro. Mun., Boro. Council Mins., 28 Dec. 1835, 1 Jan. 1836; ibid. Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. iv, p. 74.
  • 3. Inf. from P. Coverley, E.R.O. Colch. branch archivist.
  • 4. M. E. Speight, 'Politics in the Boro. of Colch. 1812-47' (Lond. Univ. Ph. D. thesis, 1969), 73-4: copy in E.R.O.
  • 5. Speight, 'Politics in Colch.' 74; E.R.O., Boro. Mun., Boro. Council Mins. 28 Dec. 1835; 1 Jan., 6 May 1836.
  • 6. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 502-8.
  • 7. Below, Fishery.
  • 8. Below, Par. Govt. and Poor Relief; Public Services; Educ.
  • 9. Speight, 'Politics in Colch.' 253-4.
  • 10. A. F. J. Brown, Chartism in Essex and Suff. 36, 39-42, 60, 85-122; Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 110-24; Speight, 'Politics in Colch.' 242-6; B.L. Add. MS. 27820, ff. 310-13, 346-8.
  • 11. Essex Tel. 1 Dec. 1885 gives details of election results 1832-85; E.R.O., Acc. C 32, Wire Colln. of election handbills and posters 1731-1852.
  • 12. J. Turner, 'Colch. Poll Bks. 1832-52' (Essex Univ. B.A. Project, 1979), 1; Speight, 'Politics in Colch.' 165-96; E.R. viii. 242.
  • 13. Speight, 'Politics in Colch.' 197-224.
  • 14. Turner, 'Colch. Poll Bks.' 8; E.R.O., Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. iv, pp. 136-7.
  • 15. Turner, 'Colch. Poll Bks.' 30; Brown, Colch. 1815- 1914, 83-4; Speight, 'Politics in Colch.' 265.
  • 16. Speight, 'Politics in Colch.' 296-8; below, Public Services (Railways).
  • 17. Turner, 'Colch. Poll Bks.' 17.
  • 18. Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 85-8.
  • 19. Below, Public Services.
  • 20. Boro. Accts. 1854-5 [350], pp. 321-2, H.C. (1856), lix.
  • 21. Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 45.
  • 22. Colch. Navigation & Improvement Act, 10 & 11 Vic. c. 281 (Local & Personal).
  • 23. E.R.O., Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. i, p. 1; v, pp. 135, 463; Phillips, Ten Men, 4; below, Soc. and Cultural (Newspapers).
  • 24. Phillips, Ten Men, 3; E.R. viii. 178; Gent. Mag. 1868 (1), p. 405.
  • 25. E.C.S. 13 Sept. 1884; 2 Jan. 1910.
  • 26. E.R.O., Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. passim; Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 101; Phillips, Ten Men, 94-6; below, this chapter, Social Hist.
  • 27. Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 82; E.C.S. 31 Oct. 1891.
  • 28. e.g. E.C.S. 22 June 1895; below, Common Lands.
  • 29. Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 99-100; E.R.O., Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. iv, pp. 179-83; Essex Tel. 1 Dec. 1885; E.C.S. 3 June 1983.
  • 30. A. Phillips, 'Four Colch. Elections', An Essex Tribute, ed. K. Neale, 199-227.
  • 31. Para. based on D. White, Liberal Ascendancy in Colch. (priv. print. Brightlingsea, 1989), 159-89.
  • 32. E.A.T. 3rd ser. xxiii. 84-5.
  • 33. Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 100-1; Essex Tel. 1 Dec. 1885.
  • 34. E.C.S. 3 July 1886.
  • 35. E.R. xxxiii. 45-6; Who's Who, 1900, 1032.
  • 36. E.C.S. 3 April 1992.
  • 37. P.R.O., MH 13/53; below, Port.
  • 38. E.R.O., Boro. Mun., Boro. Council Sanitary Cttee. Mins. 26 Feb. 1879; 28 July 1880.
  • 39. E.R.O., Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. iii, p. 32; below, Public Services; Hospitals; V.C.H. Essex Bibliog. 325.
  • 40. Colch. Boro. Council, Abstract of Accts. 1892-3, 102-3, 106-7.
  • 41. D. White, Liberal Ascendancy in Colch. 61-5; E.R.O., Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. iii, p. 85; Phillips, Ten Men, 103-15; Essex Tel. 28 Jan. 1905.
  • 42. White, Liberal Ascendancy in Colch. 65-71.
  • 43. Phillips, Ten Men, 122.
  • 44. E.C.S. 31 Oct. 1891.
  • 45. E.R.O., Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. iv, p. 74; v, p. 111; vii, pp. 143-5; E.J. xxvi (2), 34-6.
  • 46. E.C.L. Colch., Press cuttings, Mayors, S. G. Cooke; D. Cannadine, 'The transformation of civic ritual . . . the Colch. oyster feast', Past and Present, xciv. 109-30.
  • 47. E.C.S. 11 Sept. 1981; section based on E.R.O., Acc. C3, dated boro. council newspaper cuttings, 1892-1945.
  • 48. Youngs, Admin. Units. of Eng. i. 135.
  • 49. Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 104-6.
  • 50. B. Hamnett, 'Cowdray, Colch. and the British Connection', unpubl. paper, History Dept., Essex Univ.; E.C.S. 7 May 1927.
  • 51. Essex Tel. 4 Jan. 1919; E.R. xl. 89.
  • 52. E.C.S. 30 June 1917; Youngs, Admin. Units of Eng. i. 726.
  • 53. Colch. Corp. Act, 55 & 56 Vic. c. 107 (Loc. and Priv.):
  • 54. Below, Fishery; Educ.
  • 55. Below, Public Services; Port; Communications (Roads).
  • 56. Essex Tel. 24 Nov. 1894.
  • 57. E.C.S. 13 Jan. 1894; 24 Feb., 4 Apr. 1908; 21 May 1910; below, Par. Govt. and Poor Relief.
  • 58. E.R.O., Acc. C235, Box 2, reg. of shareholders of Colch. Gas Co. 1915; below, Public Services (Gas).
  • 59. Housing of the Working Classes Act, 55 & 56 Vic. c. 22.
  • 60. E.C.S. 23 Oct. 1915.
  • 61. Ibid. 10 June 1916; 6 Oct. 1917.
  • 62. Essex Tel. 8 Dec. 1917.
  • 63. Below, Public Services; Port; Communications.
  • 64. S. Durgan, 'Laissez-faire and Interventionism in Housing: Chelmsford 1900-14, a Case Study' (Essex Univ. M.A. thesis, 1981).
  • 65. R. O'Connell, 'Council Housing and the Small Town: Colch. 1919-50' (Essex Univ. M.A. thesis, 1984), 1-58, appendix.
  • 66. E.C.S. 7 Mar. 1936; 6 Nov. 1937.
  • 67. Ibid. 5 Apr. 1924.
  • 68. Essex Tel. 9 Oct. 1926.
  • 69. Below, Public Services (Fire Service).
  • 70. Essex Tel. 4 July 1942; 4 Mar. 1944.
  • 71. Colch. Boro. Council, Abstract of Accts. 1913-14, p. xiv.
  • 72. E.C.S. 5 Feb., 6 Aug. 1898.
  • 73. Ibid. 27 Apr. 1918; 6 Apr. 1929.
  • 74. Colch. Boro. Council, Abstract of Accts. 1938-9.
  • 75. E.R. xxxi. 116; xli. 211; above, this chapter, Econ.
  • 76. Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 105; E.R. lxi. 52; P. Hollis, Ladies Elect, Women in Eng. Local Govt., 1865-1914, 392.
  • 77. E.R. lviii. 51; R. Lindsey, 'Dr. Ruth Bensusan-Butt' (Essex Univ. B.A. History project, 1987).
  • 78. E.C.S. 16 Nov. 1935; 12 Feb. 1993.
  • 79. Essex Tel. 15 Nov. 1941.
  • 80. White, Liberal Ascendancy in Colch. 72-7.
  • 81. Brown, Chartism in Essex and Suff. 120-1; East Anglian Hist. Workshop Bull. vi. 7-8.
  • 82. Brown, Colch. 1815-1914, 142-50.
  • 83. E.C.S. 9 Jan. 1926; Colch. Instititute, Colch. Recalled, interview 1516A.
  • 84. E.C.S. 13 Nov. 1926; 17 Nov. 1928.
  • 85. Ibid. 8, 15 May 1926; Essex Tel. 8, 11, 15 May 1926.
  • 86. E.C.S 13 Oct. 1934; E.R.O., SA 0401.
  • 87. Essex Tel. 10 Aug., 8 Sept. 1935.
  • 88. E.C.S. 5 Dec. 1936; Essex Tel. 5 Dec. 1936.
  • 89. E.C.S. 12 May 1950; below, Public Services; Hospitals.
  • 90. O'Connell, 'Council Housing and the Small Town', 59-70, appendix.
  • 91. E.C.S. 19 Sept. 1986.
  • 92. Ibid. 7 June 1973; 26 Apr. 1968; Colch. Expr. 24 Feb. 1972.
  • 93. Colch. Official Guide (1973), 25-6.
  • 94. V.C.H. Essex Bibliog. 328.
  • 95. E.C.S 10 Jan. 1964; below, Educ.
  • 96. Colch. Gaz. 29 Oct. 1976.
  • 97. Essex Tel. 24 June 1907.
  • 98. Local Govt. Act, 21 Eliz. II, c. 70.
  • 99. Essex C.C. Essex County Handbk. 74; Colch. Boro. Council, Mins. 3 Apr. 1974; inf. from Mr. J. Cobley, town clerk and chief executive, Colch. boro. council.
  • 100. E.C.S. 29 June 1973; Colch. Charter 800 Assn., Colch. 800, 49.
  • 101. E.C.S 19 July 1991.
  • 102. Colch. Charter 800 Assn. Colch. 800, 35-6; below, Public Services (Internal Transport); above, this chapter, Econ.
  • 103. Colch. Boro. Council, Facts and Figures 1973-4, 4-5, 50.
  • 104. E.C.S. 19 Oct. 1973.