Newnham: Local government

A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 10, Westbury and Whitstone Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1972.

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'Newnham: Local government', in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 10, Westbury and Whitstone Hundreds, (London, 1972) pp. 44-46. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]


The town's status as a borough, recorded in 1187, (fn. 1) is confirmed by its exception from the hundred of Westbury. What was called the hundred of Newnham witnessed deeds in the later 12th century and in the earlier 13th. (fn. 2) That the hundred or borough of Newnham did not include the whole parish, but presumably only the town, is clear from the fact that Stears was in Westbury hundred in 1221, when Newnham township was separately represented at the eyre. (fn. 3) Newnham was again separately represented, by a bailiff and 12 jurors, at the eyre of 1248, (fn. 4) but not at that of 1287. (fn. 5)

In the late 12th century and early 13th there was a reeve of Newnham for the collection of the king's dues as lord of the manor, (fn. 6) but by 1241 the dues had been farmed to the men of Newnham at £10 a year. (fn. 7) From 1246 two bailiffs accounted for the farm, (fn. 8) which by 1276 had been reduced to £9 because of infringements of the town's market privileges. (fn. 9) The men of Newnham still held the farm in 1326. (fn. 10) By 1421, however, the men of Newnham no longer held the farm, and the lord's bailiff accounted for the several profits and perquisites of the manor or borough. (fn. 11) The change perhaps occurred when the Crown alienated the manor c. 1330, (fn. 12) and had evidently happened by 1404, when the issues were valued at 46s. 4d. clear. (fn. 13) The account of the borough was rendered by a reeve in the 1450s (fn. 14) and in 1512, (fn. 15) but in 1533 the profits were leased for 21 years at £1 a year to Richard Underwood or Jeffery, (fn. 16) apparently a local man. (fn. 17) In the late 16th century the profits were held by another lessee, Richard Witts, (fn. 18) also a local man. (fn. 19)

Meanwhile, however, the office of mayor had evolved or been introduced. The earliest recorded mayor is John Sparke, in 1542. (fn. 20) In 1603 it was stated that 40 years earlier the lord of the manor had leased the court baron of Newnham to Thomas Goold and his successors as mayor, who still held the court in 1603. (fn. 21) It was presumably by that lease that the mayor was responsible, in 1584, for weighing bread. (fn. 22) The fact that the courts leet held 1581-4 were said to be courts baron also, and that the mayor had no part in them, (fn. 23) does not rule out the possibility that he presided in the more frequent courts baron, (fn. 24) while the fact that between 1503 and 1513 the lord's records ceased to include rolls of courts that were not courts leet may indicate that the lease of the court baron was first made in that period. (fn. 25) In the early 17th century the mayor was said to be chosen by the free vote of the burgesses. (fn. 26) The names of 11 mayors, some of whom served the office more than once, have been encountered, all in the period 1542-1691. (fn. 27) The burgesses or freemen, who claimed certain privileges in the court baron, (fn. 28) were presumably not necessarily occupiers of the burgages already mentioned. (fn. 29) Aldermen are recorded from 1576; (fn. 30) in the 18th century six were elected with the mayor each year. (fn. 31) In 1683 the so-called mayor and corporation drew up an address to the Crown, (fn. 32) which was presented in the name of the mayor, aldermen, and burgesses. (fn. 33)

The idea that Newnham was a corporate town (fn. 34) seems to have been connected with the belief that it had the right to return a member to parliament, (fn. 35) and an account of the town c. 1708 mentioned vaguely 'ample franchises making it a mayor town, with other large immunities long since clearly lost.' (fn. 36) One immunity claimed in 1603 was that the sheriff did not serve or execute writs, other than non omittas, which by ancient custom was done by the constables at the mayor's appointment. (fn. 37) The constables, however, were presumably subject not to the mayor but to the lord's court leet. (fn. 38)

Whatever the mayor's functions in the 16th century and early 17th it was said c. 1708 that the mayor and aldermen had no power over the town. (fn. 39) The statement a few years later that the town was governed by a mayor (fn. 40) is likely to have been based on the assumption that since there was a mayor his was the chief authority. The seat in the church lately belonging to the mayor was mentioned in 1712. (fn. 41) The court baron, which had been held under the mayor's authority, was summoned in the name of the lord of the manor in 1736. (fn. 42) About 1775 the inhabitants still chose each year a mayor and six aldermen, who had no authority, (fn. 43) and not long afterwards (fn. 44) the election, a mere amusement, was abandoned. (fn. 45)

The Newnham sword is a survival of the state once kept by the mayors. Notwithstanding the belief that King John gave the sword to the town with its charter, (fn. 46) the sword, which is exceptionally large and designed for ceremonial not martial use, was originally made in the mid 15th century. (fn. 47) In 1594 the mayor, John Morse, (fn. 48) raised a subscription among the inhabitants and others with which he repaired the sword, until then rusty and without any scabbard, and had a silver mace made to replace a little iron mace that had been carried in front of the mayor. Sword and mace were thereafter carried before the mayor at the time of the fairs and at a few other festivals. The serjeant at mace was alleged in 1603 to have power of arrest on the goods of any person in the town and manor of Newnham; (fn. 49) other record of his office has not been found. The sword, in a quill scabbard, and the mace were in use c. 1703, (fn. 50) but c. 1708 only the sword was mentioned (fn. 51) and later evidence of the mace is lacking. In 1813 the sword was kept at the Bear Inn, (fn. 52) where the manor court was then held, (fn. 53) but it was not clear who owned it. John James, who bought the manor in 1850, was later said to have bought the sword separately and not as part of the manor. The inhabitants of the town obtained an injunction preventing his trustees from selling the sword with the manor to Tom Goold, and James's family ceded all rights in the sword to the town. The sword, however, was pledged as security for the legal costs of the injunction, and so passed into Goold's possession. In or after 1879 Goold's son sold it to a collector, Seymour Lucas, who sold it in 1890 to R. J. Kerr, then lord of the manor. (fn. 54) In 1968 it hung, on loan from the Kerrs, in the Gloucester city museum.

The town had its own prison c. 1220, (fn. 55) in 1584, (fn. 56) and in 1603. (fn. 57) The borough customs included stallgavel or stallgale, (fn. 58) also called smoke-silver, smokegroats, or smoke-pence, a payment of 4d. by each burgess or other occupant of a substantial house in which a fire was kindled; (fn. 59) tolls on the fairs and markets; and stallage, stakepence, or pitching penny, a payment of 1d. by outsiders offering wares in the streets at fair-times. (fn. 60)

Rolls of the court of the manor or borough of Newnham survive for 1503, 1513, 1516, (fn. 61) 1581, 1583-4, (fn. 62) and in draft for 1759-1831. (fn. 63) After 1503 they are rolls only of the courts at which the view of frankpledge was held. By 1433 courts baron were held on Mondays, at irregular intervals: in that year there were eight such courts, at one of which the view of frankpledge was also taken. (fn. 64) A court baron was held every three weeks in 1460, and view of frankpledge twice a year. (fn. 65) In 1503 the court baron was held on alternate Mondays, to hear pleas of debt, trespass, and detainder, and on one occasion to deal with tenurial business. (fn. 66) In 1603, when the court still met on alternate Mondays, the sums within its jurisdiction were limited to 40s. (fn. 67) No later evidence of the court baron has been found, apart from the summons of the court in 1736 mentioned above. The court leet in 1503 received presentments from the constables of assaults and from aletasters of brewers against the assize. (fn. 68) In the 1580s it also made orders for restraining trade by strangers and for mending the street and impounding horses tethered there, admitted burgesses, and received presentments against the constables for not imprisoning people who played cards at Whitsun and against Owen Apbevan for refusing to keep the watch according to the town's custom. (fn. 69)

Whereas courts baron were held in 1603 in the town-house (fn. 70) and a court-house was recorded in 1715, (fn. 71) and although the court leet ordered in 1762 that the lord of the manor should build a courthouse, from 1759 to 1831 the court leet met at inns, at the 'Bear' for most of the period but at the 'Upper George' 1785-90 and 1822-31 and at the 'Ship' 1814-21. The court was held in October each year, and in addition to the usual presentments and orders about highways and nuisances it presented the lord of the manor for not repairing the town well, pillory, and stocks in 1759, ordered him to move the pound in 1766 and 1768 and to remove stones and rubble in 1771. In 1762, however, the court ordered that whereas the lord of the manor should set up a pillory the inhabitants should set up stocks. The court appointed two constables and a crier who was also the hayward; (fn. 72) the officers mentioned c. 1708 were the constables, a bread-weigher, an aletaster, and a leather-sealer. The constables were said also to be called beams, (fn. 73) and the crier may have held the same office as the bellman who in 1637 received, by what right was uncertain, the toll corn of the town. (fn. 74)

For Ruddle manor there was a separate court recorded c. 1273, when as the halimote of Ruddle it witnessed a deed, (fn. 75) and in 1336. (fn. 76) Rolls survive of 17 courts baron in the period 1598-1625, when the manor evidently had no leet jurisdiction. (fn. 77) In the later 18th century, however, the lord of the manor held an annual court leet, (fn. 78) and there are records of courts leet held in 1791, 1798, 1803, and 1809, of perambulations of the bounds in 1819 and 1828, and of five courts, with a perambulation on four of them, between 1840 and 1892. (fn. 79) The tithingman of Ruddle was mentioned c. 1708 as assisting the constables of Newnham in the government of the parish. (fn. 80) The court leet appointed a constable and a hayward from 1791 to 1809, and in 1803 claimed for the lord in addition to view of frankpledge the liberties of wreck, waif, strays, and felons' and fugitives' goods. (fn. 81)

The parish officers, two churchwardens, two overseers, and two surveyors, were no more numerous than in an ordinary rural parish. In 1690 the churchwardens paid for mending the church house, which received attention at intervals up to 1787. The church house may have been the same building as that called the workhouse in 1791 (fn. 82) and later, and it may also have been the house that stood until 1875 at the north-west corner of the churchyard. (fn. 83) Certainly in 1809 the workhouse stood beside the main road. (fn. 84) At about that time there were up to 20 paupers relieved in the workhouse, where the work that they did included spinning, weaving, and tanning. (fn. 85) The workhouse may have been instituted in response to the rapid increase in the cost of poor relief, which rose nearly fourfold in the period 1776-1803. The high number of non-parishioners relieved (fn. 86) may reflect the passage of the main road through the town. In addition to the workhouse, the apprenticing of children by the parish was adopted as an expedient for relieving the poverty of parishioners: the parish had been doing so on a limited scale since the late 17th century, but in 1802, following an agreement about it, indentures were made for 15 children, apparently all the poor of suitable age. (fn. 87) The workhouse was still in use in 1834, (fn. 88) but it was presumably sold soon after Newnham had become part of the Westbury Union in 1835. (fn. 89)

A local board of health for Newnham was formed in 1863, (fn. 90) and in consequence the parish became an urban district under the Act of 1894. In 1935, however, Newnham U.D. was merged in Gloucester R.D. (fn. 91)


  • 1. Pipe R. 1187 (P.R.S. xxxvii), 142.
  • 2. Flaxley Cart. pp. 154-5, 161; Glouc. Corp. Recs. pp. 135, 176.
  • 3. Pleas of the Crown for Glos. ed. Maitland, pp. 75-76, 81-82.
  • 4. Trans. B.G.A.S. x. 302.
  • 5. J.I. 1/284 m. 18 (20).
  • 6. Flaxley Cart. pp. 136, 143, 154-5; C 115/K/A 1 sec. IV no. cxxix.
  • 7. Cal. Lib. 1240-5, 57; Pipe R. 1242 (ed. H. L. Cannon), 254.
  • 8. Cal. Lib. 1245-51, 41, 107, 335; cf. Glouc. Corp. Recs. p. 222.
  • 9. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), i. 182-3.
  • 10. Mem. R. 1326-7, p. 3.
  • 11. Trans. B.G.A.S. xviii. 156; Staffs. R.O., D 641/1/2/ 163, m. 10.
  • 12. See p. 36.
  • 13. D.L. 29/729/12003.
  • 14. S.C. 6/1117/9 m. 8.
  • 15. Staffs. R.O., D 641/1/2/205, m. 7d.
  • 16. S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/1075 m. 6.
  • 17. e.g. Glouc. Corp. Recs. p. 416.
  • 18. Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 m. 1.
  • 19. Trans. B.G.A.S. xviii. 164; Smith, Men and Armour, 48.
  • 20. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xvii, p. 499.
  • 21. Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 mm. 3, 16.
  • 22. Staffs. R.O., D 641/2/E/3/20, roll 3.
  • 23. Ibid. rolls 1-3.
  • 24. See below.
  • 25. Staffs. R.O., D 641/1/4 L/1-2.
  • 26. Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 m. 24.
  • 27. Ibid. mm. 6, 16, 23, 29; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xvii, p. 499; Smith, Men and Armour, 47; Bigland, Glos. ii. 271-2, 274.
  • 28. Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 m. 7.
  • 29. See p. 31.
  • 30. Glos. R.O., D 154/T 4.
  • 31. Bodl. MS. Top. Glouc. C.3, f. 138.
  • 32. Cal. S.P. Dom. July-Sept. 1683, 440.
  • 33. Lond. Gaz. 1-4 Oct. 1683.
  • 34. Defoe, Tour thro' G.B. (1761 edn.), ii. 313.
  • 35. Cf. p. 30.
  • 36. Bodl. MS. Top. Glouc. C.3, f. 138.
  • 37. Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 m. 23.
  • 38. Cf. Staffs. R.O., D 641/2/E/3/20, roll 3; Glos. R.O. D 265/M 1.
  • 39. Bodl. MS. Top. Glouc. C.3, f. 138.
  • 40. Atkyns, Glos. 576.
  • 41. Hockaday Abs. ccxcviii.
  • 42. Staffs. R.O., D 641/2/E/3/20.
  • 43. Rudder, Glos. 371.
  • 44. Rudge, Hist. of Glos. ii. 71.
  • 45. Brayley and Britton, Beauties of Eng. and Wales, v. 715.
  • 46. Defoe, Tour thro' G.B. (1761 edn.), ii. 313; there was no such charter.
  • 47. Proc. Soc. Antiq. xi. 131-4; xii. 195.
  • 48. Inscr. on sword.
  • 49. Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 m. 6 and d.
  • 50. Bodl. MS. Rawl. B. 323, f. 115v.
  • 51. Bodl. MS. Top. Glouc. C.3, f. 138.
  • 52. C. Heath, Historical and Descrip. Accts. of ... Chepstow (Monmouth, 1813), quire N (Glos. Colln. 8033).
  • 53. Glos. R.O., D 265/M 3.
  • 54. Ibid. M 15; cf. Glos. N. & Q. iii. 195.
  • 55. Pleas of the Crown for Glos. ed. Maitland, pp. 75-76.
  • 56. Staffs. R.O., D 641/2/E/3/20, roll 3.
  • 57. Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 m. 22.
  • 58. Trans. B.G.A.S. xviii. 156-7; Staffs. R.O., D 641/1/2/ 163, m. 10.
  • 59. S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/1075 m. 6d.; Staffs. R.O., D 641/2/ G/2/1; Trans. B.G.A.S. lxxii. 103.
  • 60. D.L. 29/594/9514 m. 7d.; D.L. 29/729/12003; Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 m. 1 d.
  • 61. Staffs. R.O., D 641/1/4 L/1-2.
  • 62. Ibid. D 641/2/E/3/20.
  • 63. Glos. R.O., D 265/M 1-4.
  • 64. Staffs. R.O., D 641/1/2/163, m. 10.
  • 65. C 139/180 no. 43.
  • 66. Staffs. R.O., D 641/1/4 L/1.
  • 67. Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 m. 6d.
  • 68. Staffs. R.O., D 641/1/4 L/1, mm. 1, 2d.
  • 69. Ibid. D 641/2/E/3/20 rolls 1-3.
  • 70. Sta. Cha. 8/230/23 m. 20.
  • 71. Trans. B.G.A.S. lxxii. 103.
  • 72. Glos. R.O., D 265/M 1-4.
  • 73. Bodl. MS. Top. Glouc. C. 3, f. 138.
  • 74. Staffs. R.O., D 641/2/G/2/1.
  • 75. Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Frocester B, p. 29.
  • 76. Cal. Inq. p.m. vi, p. 462.
  • 77. Glos. R.O., D 265/M 9.
  • 78. Rudder, Glos. 573.
  • 79. Glos. R.O., D 265/M 10, M 15.
  • 80. Bodl. MS. Top. Glouc. C. 3, f. 138.
  • 81. Glos. R.O., D 265/M 5.
  • 82. Newnham par. rec., churchwardens' acct. bk. 1686- 1810.
  • 83. Ibid. photog. in scrapbk.; cf. G.D.R. Newnham tithe award.
  • 84. Glos. R.O., D 265/M 4.
  • 85. Poor Law Abstract, 1804, 184-5; 1818, 156-7; Newnham par. rec., workho. provisions bk. and workho. ledger 1815-17.
  • 86. Poor Law Abstract, 1804, 184-5.
  • 87. Newnham par. rec., apprenticeship indentures; agreement of 1802.
  • 88. Glos. R.O., D 1768.
  • 89. Poor Law Com. 2nd Rep. p. 524.
  • 90. Return of Districts, H.C. 80, p. 15 (1867), lix.
  • 91. Census, 1901, 1931 (pt. ii).