A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1957.
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COUNTY GOVERNMENT c. 1660–1835
The Structure of Government, p. 170. The Work of County Administration, p. 181. County Finance, p. 189.
The structure of government
IN 1660 the life of the older forms of local government in Wiltshire, courts of county, hundred, and manor, was by no means over. In the Middle Ages the county courts had acted in both larger and smaller forms, the larger representative body doing administrative business, the smaller giving judgement on actions for the payment of debt. Until the introduction of the ballot the assembly in which the knights of the shire were chosen recalled some features of the large assemblies of the county court in the 13th century. The smaller assembly of the court preserved a somewhat less tenuous existence, for throughout this period there was a county court for each of the northern and southern divisions of the county, presided over by the county clerk appointed by the sheriff, and supported by the bailiffs also appointed by him. Even in the thirties of the 19th century these courts were sitting up to a fortnight each year dealing with cases of petty debt. (fn. 1) A number of hundred courts continued to function throughout the 18th century, and some lasted into the middle of the nineteenth. (fn. 2) Their main business was the appointment of constables and the righting of local nuisances; (fn. 3) such petty debt business as was transacted diminished with the decreasing purchasing power of money, for their jurisdiction was limited to sums of forty shillings. (fn. 4) Under George III as the county and hundred courts declined in value for petty debt cases, courts of requests were set up by statute. In Wiltshire there were half a dozen of these down the industrial west of the county at Bradford-on-Avon, Chippenham, Melksham, Trowbridge, Warminster, and Westbury (together with courts of record in the boroughs of Devizes, Marlborough, Wilton, and Salisbury) which did an active petty debt business, (fn. 5) and which, at least in the opinion of the clerks who drew fees from them, were of value to the county, especially in view of the defects of the county courts. (fn. 6) Manorial courts also survived into the 18th century in very large numbers, and one at least was still being held in the twentieth century. (fn. 7) It seems probable that in 1660 survival was the rule rather than the exception, and the courts seem to have justified their existence to the lords by the fines they imposed. Other business included the appointment of constables, curbing local nuisances, the settlement of agricultural business, and the transfer of copyholds on the manor. (fn. 8) Some of the court rolls suggest that the business was entirely completed, largely in common form, by the steward before arrival, and then the nearest labourers to hand were brought in to provide the semblance of a court. But in some form at least, manorial courts in Wiltshire lasted longer than some authorities have thought general.
The old survivals, however, did not overshadow the central importance of the quarter sessions which were constantly encroaching on the old authority of the manor. Long before the Glorious Revolution there were lords of manors who looked to quarter sessions in matters of manorial organization, (fn. 9) and from 1660 at least the justices in sessions were appointing tythingmen where no court leet had been held, (fn. 10) and punishing others who proved contumacious towards the court leet. (fn. 11) The appointment of many constables and tythingmen was already in the hands of quarter sessions. (fn. 12) Some constables served several years in office (fn. 13) (the court indeed required them to serve 2 years); (fn. 14) but though cases were known of constables discharging their office by deputy, (fn. 15) there is no evidence that as in urban Middlesex the office became semiprofessional. (fn. 16)
As in other counties the constables were among the most important servants of the quarter sessions, but they had the defects of compulsory unpaid labour, especially as they held office for comparatively short periods, and served in their spare time. It was, of course, in the matters which touched them and their neighbours most nearly that the constables were least reliable. One of these was religious persecution, and already within a month of the passing of the Act of Uniformity there were complaints that the constables would not put down unlawful 'conventicles of Anabaptists Separatists and other schismaticall persons'. (fn. 17) Constables commonly lacked zeal also in the levying of rates, whether in securing the proper accounting for poor rate, (fn. 18) in raising the special rate for the relief of those stricken with plague in Salisbury in 1666, (fn. 19) or in collecting the rates for normal county business. (fn. 20) Nor were they always efficient in making their returns to court. (fn. 21) Quarter sessions also found it necessary to forbid constables to keep ale-houses during their term of office. (fn. 22) But though the constables were in many ways unsatisfactory servants, the court and Parliament had no option but to give them many new duties as time went on; impressment in 1667, (fn. 23) the suppression of a local menace from vagabonds in 1683, (fn. 24) making returns for the census of 1801, (fn. 25) keeping standard weights and measures in 1820, (fn. 26) were but a few.
Other officials of manor and parish were equally subject to the authority of quarter sessions. The surveyors of highways made their presentments to the court, (fn. 27) were empowered to raise rates, (fn. 28) to quarry road metal even from enclosed land, (fn. 29) and were supported by orders of the court against farmers who failed to perform their obligations in road-mending, and against unwilling ratepayers. (fn. 30) Early in the 18th century the court seems to have made use of a printed form in ordering surveyors of highways to make rates for road repairs, with blanks for the place and amount of the rate. (fn. 31) Churchwardens were parish officials but both their accounts, (fn. 32) and the way they levied the poor rate, (fn. 33) had to be satisfactory to quarter sessions. On occasion the court even settled individual assessments to the poor rate of a particular parish. (fn. 34) Overseers of the poor were also appointed by justices. (fn. 35)
If quarter sessions stood above the officials of parish and hundred they were still subject to outside checks and outside pressure. On a serious rating dispute the court itself might desire the decision of the justices of assize. (fn. 36) In 1667 the county was under strong pressure from the assizes to raise rates for the relief of those afflicted with the plague in Salisbury, (fn. 37) and in 1673 had to admit liability to maintain Harnham bridge. (fn. 38) Still worse in 1808 the clerk of the peace had to plead guilty at the assizes to presentments made by the grand jury of the state of the county gaol and the houses of correction. (fn. 39) The court was also subject to the jurisdiction of the Court of King's Bench. In 1662 the clerk of the peace had to appear in that court on behalf of the county for not repairing a bridge. (fn. 40) The King's Bench, however, was unlikely to interfere with an administrative discretion clearly in the hands of the court of quarter sessions, and lapses apart, its action was mainly to be feared in cases where the responsibilities and powers of the magistrates were not quite clear.
Although the days of the Star Chamber were past, while the Stuart dynasty survived the central authority attempted spasmodically to put pressure upon local government. The Treasury wrote periodically to quarter sessions about failures of the justices in raising the hearth tax, and sometimes at least their exhortations were rewarded with action. (fn. 41) As fear of sectarianism began to be replaced by fear of popery, the Privy Council sent letters demanding the persecution of Roman Catholics. (fn. 42) In 1666 Clarendon added his pressure to that of the justices on assize for relief in Salisbury, (fn. 43) and ten years later Danby sought to stir up action against the planters of home-grown tobacco. (fn. 44) After the Revolution the J.P.'s lost most of their tax-collecting functions, and with a weakened central authority even this degree of pressure was relaxed. Apart from the occasional resolutions to suppress the spread of vice, (fn. 45) the central government allowed the quarter sessions to go their own way.
This survey is sufficient to indicate that after the Restoration the Wiltshire quarter sessions not only faced no significant rivals from the remoter past in the administration of the county, but had substantial independence from the checks of outside authority. Executive pressure was of secondary importance before the Revolution and was almost non-existent thereafter. The existence of the superior jurisdiction of other courts was a more effective limitation, but in the nature of the case operated only spasmodically and left the quarter sessions and its servants the vast field dealt with in contemporary justices' manuals. And often the decision of the assizes on points of doubtful jurisdiction must have been not unwelcome to the quarter sessions even when it increased their financial liabilities.
The court of quarter sessions which thus occupied the forefront of local government in Wiltshire as elsewhere, not only did its administrative work in judicial forms, but was still mainly judicial in structure. In 1660 the only professional administrative officers under its control were the keeper of the county gaol and house of correction at Fisherton Anger, and the keepers of the bridewells at Devizes and Marlborough. These appointments were in the hands of the court and were terminable by it. (fn. 46) For certain purposes the court might also employ two ancient officers—the sheriff and his deputy.
That the sheriffs had ceased to play an important part in Wiltshire local government by the Restoration, is indicated by the fact that they rarely appear in the county records. But in the twenties of the 19th century the sheriff still claimed some rights of oversight of the county gaol, (fn. 47) and the office still carried sufficient honour to be disputed among the gentlemen of the county. (fn. 48) For the most part, however, the duties of the sheriff and under-sheriff towards quarter sessions lay in levying fines imposed by the court, (fn. 49) and arresting constables who did not pay over the rates. (fn. 50) The other great local dignitary, the lord lieutenant, had little importance in administration, though his influence in the appointment of magistrates was of social and political significance.
More significant was the control exercised by the court over individual J.P.s and their meetings in petty sessions. In 1662 the court was induced by the great flood of petitions for pensions from wounded soldiers to order individual justices to examine them locally and to certify the court as to fitness of applicants. (fn. 51) In 1664 it was ordered that no presentments for not repairing the common highway should be discharged without a certificate from a justice that the road was in good repair. (fn. 52) Individual justices supervised the bridge repairs on behalf of the court and acted as treasurers for the works. (fn. 53) In 1691 they were ordered to inspect the constables' accounts of rate receipts, (fn. 54) and in 1742 received the instructions of the court on the treatment of vagrants. (fn. 55) The petty sessions were also in one aspect an agent of the quarter sessions. Indeed in 1670 petty sessions were roundly denounced by the court for allowing offenders to escape unpunished and were ordered to reform for the future by returning all presentments and recognizances to the clerk of the peace. (fn. 56) Cases of the non-payment of wages, (fn. 57) of rating disputes, (fn. 58) and of bastardy inquiries (fn. 59) were all referred by the quarter sessions to the petty sessions; the clerks to the petty sessions were also subject to similar regulation. (fn. 60) Clearly individual justices and the divisional petty sessions were a great assistance to the court of quarter sessions both in sifting and in settling local business.
This slender apparatus was to prove insufficient for the administrative work of the Wiltshire government before the 18th century was out. One of the most significant developments of the whole period was the growth of a professional bureaucracy at the disposal of the quarter sessions. By the early 19th century the foundations of the modern departments of the clerk of the peace, the county treasurer and the county surveyor had all been laid. But in 1660 the only one of these officials in existence was the clerk of the peace, and he was appointed by the custos rotulorum. For a generation after the Restoration the clerk seems to have been an official of no great importance although his responsibilities were widening; in 1689 indeed the court appointed Robert Constable 'to act by himself or deputy'. (fn. 61) Long before this, however, the clerk with his deputy had conducted the sessions business in superior courts, (fn. 62) and this type of work, together with prosecutions of delinquent keepers of mad-houses (fn. 63) or contractors (fn. 64) was to grow as the 18th century proceeded. (fn. 65) Work in the courts was native to the succession of attorneys who acted as clerks. In the 18th century the office fell into the hands of a small dynasty of descendants of Michael Foster, a Marlborough attorney (1658–1720). Michael Foster who resigned the clerkship in 1736 was his son, (fn. 66) while his successor and former deputy William Hawkes was the husband of Hannah Foster, the fourth daughter of the elder Michael. On his death in 1743 he was succeeded by Michael Ewen, the son of Sarah, Hannah's eldest sister. He also acted as clerk of the peace for Somerset, and his long reign lasted till his death in 1782. (fn. 67) Lawyer-like these clerks steadily multiplied their fees as opportunity offered. (fn. 68) By 1802 the clerks' fees amounted to over £100, in 1823 they were £380, and occasionally they fell barely short of £500. (fn. 69)
In the course of the 18th century besides increasing their fees the clerks acquired many administrative duties and gradually stood out as the most important figures in the new bureaucracy. James Edgell acted as county treasurer 1703–13, (fn. 70) and was given instructions for improving the execution of the justice of the court. (fn. 71) When in the early 19th century quarter sessions began to do much business in committee, the clerk was made secretary to some of the most important, such as that appointed for gaol building. (fn. 72) Soon afterwards despite the appointment of a professional county surveyor, the clerk was given discretion in ordering the repair of bridges, (fn. 73) and it was he, not the surveyor, who was required in 1817 to inspect the bridges which had been presented at the assizes. (fn. 74) In the later twenties the clerk began a long series of annual reports to the court upon the state of the county gaol and the houses of correction; these, though somewhat complacent about the prisoners' welfare, were based upon all the available evidence including the reports of the surgeons and chaplains. In the same way the clerk was attached to the commissions of visitors appointed to investigate the lunatic asylums of the county. (fn. 75) Thus the clerk of the peace who at the beginning of this period was primarily a country lawyer, and might serve by deputy, had by the end gone far in metamorphosis into a county bureaucrat. The increase in his fees, his new functions recorded in the minutes, and his influence over the administrative business of the county, all bear witness to the change in his professional character.
In some ways the development of the office of county treasurer is even more striking, though it took longer in Wiltshire than in Warwickshire for example. (fn. 76) In 1660 there were four treasurers for the county, two for each of the northern and southern divisions. One of each pair received the rates raised for the maintenance of prisons and bridewells, the other the rates raised for the relief of wounded soldiers, (fn. 77) but either might be drawn upon in the course of county business. These treasurers were local gentlemen or tradesmen elected and replaced annually. The assumptions behind this system were thus that the office was a liability on the county which ought to be fairly shared, and that it required no special skill to perform. It is not surprising that in 1670 the court spoke sympathetically of the 'great trouble and expense which the Treasurers of this county ... are putt to by reason of their continuall attendance on ye general quarter sessions' in forbidding the execution of the office by deputy, and the appropriation of their balances to unauthorized purposes. (fn. 78) As the victims of the Civil War died off, and pensions were reduced, the need for a separate treasurer for this purpose diminished, and finally a great advance was made in 1703 when the work of the two remaining treasurers was united under James Edgell, the clerk of the peace. Although for a few years the work was divided again, (fn. 79) the office of county treasurer had been added to the county bureaucracy. Some of the early treasurers were not of the most distinguished order; John Haskins (1713–25) was an innkeeper of Calne. But from 1722 appointments were no longer annual but for indefinite duration, and soon in John Phipps (1735–41) the county was appointing a probable connexion of that exalted figure the receivergeneral of the land tax. Though an innkeeper too he had to find £1,000 security. (fn. 80) After the office had briefly relapsed again to the clerk of the peace (William Hawkes 1741–3), it blossomed once more into independence in the hands of William Salmon of Devizes (who enjoyed a salary of £15 a year to cover all expenses) (fn. 81) and perhaps a successor of the same name (1743–1813); it then passed to his son William Wroughton Salmon. (fn. 82) In 1820 his salary was raised to £150 a year. (fn. 83) The history of the county finances has been reserved for separate treatment, and it is sufficient to say here that during the long reign of the Salmon family, the expenditure of the county multiplied enormously, and the county treasurer had to master the technique not only of managing much larger sums than of old, but of putting county money into the government floating debt, and superintending the growth of a county debt in Wiltshire. During this period the treasurer, like the clerk of the peace, acquired greater business, increased his experience and gained in professional stature.
In view of the fact that among the main expenses of the county was the maintenance of the county gaol, the houses of correction and the county bridges with adjacent stretches of road, it is remarkable that the office of county surveyor took much longer to rise to importance than those of the clerk of the peace and the county treasurer. The amateur pride of the justices is perhaps evident in nothing more clearly than in their persistent refusal to admit that the upkeep of roads and buildings required professional skill, a refusal they maintained until the nineteenth century. It was recognized soon after the Restoration, however, that the true road to economy was through regular maintenance, and in 1669 two commissions of four magistrates were appointed to undertake regular inspections of the bridges in the northern and southern divisions respectively. (fn. 84) Not long afterwards Sir Richard Grobham Howe and William Swanton presented three bridges, and Swanton who had already been paying out large sums for bridge repairs was ordered 'to appoint a skilful person to be a Surveyor' and to allow him 'what he considers to be a reasonable reward for his trouble'. (fn. 85) This system whereby a justice with a special interest in bridges took their maintenance under his wing seems to have continued; in the middle of the 18th century one Matthew Pitts disbursed numerous sums of money in repairs, (fn. 86) and died with a balance in hand. (fn. 87) Other magistrates were active after his death, (fn. 88) and towards the end of the century were given some kind of official title; in 1792 Thomas Bush was appointed' Surveyor of the County Bridge at Bradford in the room of Samuel Cam deceased', John Jones another magistrate was made surveyor of Staverton bridge, (fn. 89) and it is clear that the division of this work among specially designated justices of the peace had become systematic. In serious cases a commission of justices might be appointed to superintend the work. (fn. 90) But there were others than magistrates engaged in work of this kind. In the middle of the 18th century there were surveyors appointed for short terms to maintain the Devizes bridewell; one of them, John Massey, was a Devizes woolstapler. (fn. 91) In the seventies Biggs the keeper of the gaol at Fisherton Anger was undertaking highway repairs. (fn. 92) During the 18th century therefore the maintenance of the bridges and gaols of Wiltshire seems to have been undertaken partly by devolving responsibilities upon individual justices of the peace, partly by the use of expedients.
It was not till 1810, after Melksham bridge had been found so ruinous as to require complete rebuilding, that quarter sessions went so far as to appoint a professional surveyor. Even then the appointment was for only one year in the first instance, and the first successful candidate declined to act and was at once replaced. (fn. 93) In 1822 the second 'General Surveyor of County bridges and public works' was appointed, again on a yearly contract, with no more definite promise of remuneration than that his allowances should be settled at the end of the year. (fn. 94) Nor was the new professional surveyor allowed to have his head in technical matters. His plan for rebuilding the bridge at Christian Malford was rejected by the court as being 'adapted for too great a breadth of water'. (fn. 95) Individual magistrates still gave orders for at least temporary repairs to county bridges, (fn. 96) and local tradesmen were still appointed surveyors of county bridges, at least in the Salisbury area. (fn. 97) But the decisive step away from the expedients of the past had been made, and before the end of the twenties, the county surveyor seems to have established a position comparable with that of the other leading servants of the quarter sessions. His salary was raised to £260 a year. (fn. 98) Orders relating to the repair of bridges poured upon him, and he seems to have been in sole charge of the technical work. (fn. 99) By this time a third great branch of the county administration had begun to take bureaucratic shape.
Although the clerk of the peace and the county treasurer dated from much earlier times, it was thus not until the early years of the 19th century that the Wiltshire quarter sessions began actively to employ bureaucratic methods in their administration. It was just at this period too that decisive changes were made in the structure of the court. Pressure of business now compelled the clerk of the peace to become an administrator and committee man as well as a lawyer. Greatly increased budgets and more complicated financial techniques required greater efforts from the county treasurer which were rewarded by a much larger salary. The greater strain of modern traffic upon the county bridges compelled the court first to appoint a county surveyor, and then to allow him greater responsibilities.
Meanwhile what of the court to which these officials were responsible ? The justices of Wiltshire were of the usual calibre. Most of them were of the gentry class, and ranged from members of a parliamentary dynasty such as the Bayntuns, (fn. 100) to men of small importance outside their own area. However, clothiers such as John Bythesea, the nonconformist of Trowbridge, were not excluded in the 18th century, and from the middle of the century the clerical element upon the commission, apparently nonexistent in 1660, began to grow steadily, and it seems probable, took the lead in some matters such as prison reform. (fn. 101) The other noticeable difference towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, is that the justices began to be seasoned by a sprinkling of scions or even heads of titled families. Lord William Seymour, the Earl of Radnor, and Viscount Barrington were among the aristocratic elements which began to take their seats upon the commission. But to the end, the untitled country gentlemen remained the backbone of Wiltshire government.
The number and distribution of the justices over the county are extremely difficult to estimate. The only date at which precise information is available is 1786, when a list of acting magistrates compiled by the clerk of the peace named 58 J.P.s (of whom 4 were titled and 10 were parsons). These were spread over the county in small numbers for the different divisions ranging from 8 for each of the divisions of Sarum and Hindon, down to 2 for the hundred of Elstub and Everley. (fn. 102) Registers of the justices who attended at quarter sessions made at regular intervals from 1660 indicate that this total of magistrates represented the normal strength of the county, though at the very end of the 18th century the numbers rose above sixty.
The Webbs asserted that 'right down to the last quarter of the eighteenth century it was... unusual for the bench at quarter sessions to consist of more than three or four magistrates', (fn. 103) but in Wiltshire, although attendances were sometimes as small as this, they were commonly much larger. Attendances of ten or even fifteen were by no means unknown in the 17th century, (fn. 104) and were little less in the middle and sometimes more at the end of the 18th century. As has been said in an earlier chapter, quarter sessions in Wiltshire made a circuit annually through the county following a fairly, although by no means entirely, regular course. (fn. 105) After the Restoration it became customary for the Hilary sessions to meet at Salisbury, the Easter sessions at Devizes, the Trinity sessions at Warminster and the Michaelmas sessions at Marlborough. In 1717, in the effort to find places 'within the county... where no franchise or charter may be objected in opposition to the authority of His Majesty's Justices of the Peace', the court resolved to go to Chippenham instead of Marlborough, but old habits soon reasserted themselves, and when, during the outbreak of smallpox in 1729, the magistrates of the Marlborough division suggested the transfer of their sessions to Wootton Bassett, they were rebuked for suggesting a grossly illegal course of action. (fn. 106) Indeed, the only change made since the Restoration in the above sequence of quarter-sessions towns was that in 1786 and thenceforth the Hilary sessions were held at Devizes and the Easter sessions at Salisbury. (fn. 107) By this highly revered convention each part of the county had the opportunity to transact its business locally, and throughout this period the great bulk of the Wiltshire magistrates were incorrigible in their refusal to attend at any but the local sessions. In the middle of the 18th century they began to extend still further this process of taking the court to the county. (fn. 108) In 1761, for example, the Michaelmas sessions were held at Marlborough, then adjourned to Salisbury and then to Trowbridge. (fn. 109) Rapid adjournments of the court from place to place continued at intervals thereafter, and became especially numerous in the first decade of the 19th century. Although the main quarter sessions meetings were well attended, it was often a problem to get magistrates to appear at the successive adjournments, and despite an order of the court in 1785 that notice of all the business of the adjourned sessions was to be given in the Salisbury Journal, (fn. 110) it not uncommonly happened that meetings had to be adjourned again because no justices were present. (fn. 111) Sometimes the court seems to have adjourned in order to allow committees and local justices to act with the full powers of the court.
The Easter sessions 1809 was adjourned from Salisbury to the county gaol at Fisherton Anger where a scheme was on foot to move the premises to a neighbouring site, (fn. 112) then to Melksham where a committee was to supervise the entire rebuilding of the bridge, (fn. 113) and then to Devizes where tenders were to be received for work on Devizes bridewell. (fn. 114)
The disadvantages of this perpetual migration of the court are patent enough. There were virtually four different bodies of magistrates acting in Wiltshire, and the consent of each might be needed for the adoption of major policy. The obvious step to provide some continuity in the proceedings of the court was to appoint a regular chairman. It is not clear from the records of the court how early a chairman was appointed. As has been already suggested the repeated appearance of certain clergymen at the head of the roll of the court in the 1770's when their natural position was at the bottom, may imply that they acted as chairmen, and there is a single reference to a chairman in 1792. But there is no clear evidence until 1803 when Jacob, Earl of Radnor took the chair. (fn. 115) This was probably merely a compliment paid to his rank, for although he always acted as chairman when he appeared upon the bench, he appeared only intermittently. The following year Thomas Grimstone Estcourt was made chairman, (fn. 116) and in 1809 the county acquired a really active chairman in Thomas Hele Phipps. (fn. 117) He not only took the chair at almost every sessions not graced by the Earl of Radnor, but was chairman of innumerable committees and of the adjourned sessions too. The emergence of a regular chairman of this kind is the parallel within the court to the erection of the bureaucracy outside. But Wiltshire remained in many ways more like four counties than one. It is clear from the table compiled by the clerk of the peace in 1786 that each sessions was regarded as doing the business for a particular corner of the county rather than for the county as a whole.
The weaknesses of this system came out clearly in 1810 when in May it was resolved to advertise in the press the resolution of the court to seek an Act establishing a new and equal county rate, should the bench at the next three sessions agree. (fn. 118) After successfully running the gauntlet three times the proposal came to grief at the Hilary sessions at Devizes in 1811 and nothing more was heard of it. (fn. 119) Similarly it was not till 1826 when the magistrates of Devon were already stirring, that the Wiltshire magistrates determined to make a move to alter the ancient divisions of the county, and it took till Trinity sessions 1830 to produce a final draft. (fn. 120)
In doing its work in judicial forms the court was largely dependent upon presentments made to it. In making presentments the grand jury,' the grand inquest of the county, occupied the place of greatest traditional respect. The grand jury of Wiltshire seems not to have had the interesting pretentions of that of some counties, but they presented highways, (fn. 121) criticized 'the multiplicity of Lycensed Alehouses' at Fisherton Anger, (fn. 122) brought to notice unequal rates and ruinous bridges, (fn. 123) and in 1791 made a vigorous attack on the state of the county gaol. (fn. 124) In the earlier days at least the grand jury was in some measure the organ of county opinion, for in 1674 the county treasurers were required to account for their balances to them, (fn. 125) in 1676 the grand jury complained of the administration, of justice in the county, (fn. 126) and in 1683 demanded the suppression of both 'phanaticisme' and popery. (fn. 127) But although the grand jury was occasionally stirred to vigour, as in 1745, when it made thirty-nine presentments mostly of highways and cases of felony, assault, and nuisance, (fn. 128) and though as late as 1827 it was still sufficiently venerable to be required to sit through a long-winded charge from the chairman (no doubt designed for publication), (fn. 129) it is hard not to feel that its life was ebbing in the course of the 18th century. In 1761 the constables and tythingmen were vigorously rebuked by the court for impanelling 'Gentlemen of Rank and Fortune who should serve on the Grand Jury' upon the petty juries, and putting the small fry upon the grand inquest; evidently the constables had ceased to bother greatly. (fn. 130) In 1783 the court gave the sheriff fresh instructions as to how to summon the jurors. (fn. 131) Before the end of this period the grand jury had ceased to be either a major organ of Wiltshire opinion or an essential cog in the wheel of county administration.
Besides the presentments made for the whole county by the grand inquest, there were in 1660 presentments for the localities made by the hundred juries summoned by the sheriff through the bailiffs. In the years following the Restoration the hundred juries were one of the main organs for the presentment of unrepaired roads and bridges. (fn. 132) They also kept a sharp look out for unlicensed ale-houses, (fn. 133) and presented defaulting taxpayers. (fn. 134) In 1664 the court required them to make their presentments before the sessions began so that there could be time to investigate them. (fn. 135) Eventually hundred juries decayed also, (fn. 136) but they did not cease to make presentments until the last quarter of the 18th century, a date much later than the Webbs considered general.
There were also endless presentments from the constables. Their work, however, was not always above reproach. They were not always aware whom to present for the repair of ruinous bridges, (fn. 137) and in 1678 the court ordered that 'as many of the presentments delivered to the court by jurors and constables of the respective hundreds are defective, so that they are quashed in court and offenders go unpunished, for the future all presentments must be carefully drawn... by the Clerk of the Peace for a fee of not more than 6d.' and would not otherwise be received. (fn. 138)
Besides the constables, the magistrates themselves made many presentments, mostly of administrative concerns such as the repair of bridges. By this device it was possible for magistrates to try to maintain the roads and bridges in the areas in which they had an interest, and as we have seen some of them also became informal surveyors. It was also very common for magistrates on making a presentment to be empowered by the court to appoint 'such surveyor as he shall think fit to employ', to supervise the repairs and pay for them from the county stock. At Easter 1809 four bridges were dealt with at once in this way. (fn. 139) Quarter sessions also periodically made orders to prevent the discharge of presentments of highways, &c. made by justices without adequate inspection to ensure that the repairs had been properly executed. (fn. 140) In all this work the justices revealed to the full the curious blending of the judicial and the administrative functions of their office.
Reference has already been made to the way in which the increase of county business was among the causes of the growth of a county bureaucracy; the same increase of business led inevitably to changes in the procedure of quarter sessions. In 1718 the court spoke harshly of the 'remissness and negligence,... in the execution of the process of the Court' due not only to 'the corruption of officers but... the want of a sufficient reward for the execucon thereof', and ordered the clerk of the peace 'after the delivery of any bond or recognizance to him in court... for the appearance of any person indicted' to pay 5s. to the officer who executed the indictment to be recouped from the person indicted. (fn. 141) Other orders concerned the actual operation of the court. To facilitate the dispatch of business it was settled in 1735 that all future appeals against the orders of the justices on settlement matters were to be entered with the clerk on the first day of the sessions. (fn. 142) In 1739 all traverses were made subject to a similar order. (fn. 143) From 1801 no motion for the repair of non-county bridges was to be considered unless previous notice was given to the clerk of the peace and also in the Salisbury Journal at the same time as the sessions advertisement. (fn. 144) All these orders, together with others requiring those with business to transact, (fn. 145) and those who wished to qualify for offices, (fn. 146) to attend on the first afternoon of the sessions, indicate that the court was moving very slowly towards the adoption of a list of agenda which it was to be the duty of the clerk of the peace to compile. (fn. 147) It is surprising that the court did not in this period employ such an elementary aid to methodical business, and it was not till 1826 that Mr. Estcourt got the court to order that notice of any business at all extraordinary relative to the civil affairs of the county, should be given with the sessions advertisement in the county press. (fn. 148) There was, however, one more substantial result from the confusion of business which must have arisen from such lack of method. In 1806 the clerk of the peace presented quarter sessions with a book of precedents, rules, regulations and orders 'spontaneously compiled by him from records' of the court. (fn. 149) After careful revision it was finally ready for printing and circulation amongst the commission of the peace in 1808. (fn. 150) This book of precedents did service till it was revised between 1832 and 1835. (fn. 151)
Despite improved procedure, pressure of business told heavily upon the Wiltshire quarter sessions as the 18th century drew to a close. Michaelmas sessions 1787 lasted for 3 days, Michaelmas sessions 1790 for 4, Trinity sessions 1817 for 6, Hilary sessions 1819 for 8. As we have seen the bench attempted to avoid such laborious sessions at its main meetings by means of adjournments round the county, but after the passing of an Act of Parliament and a preliminary essay in 1819, (fn. 152) the court was driven in 1821 to divide itself. For many years after that date at each sessions two courts sat in the same town, one of the normal type, the other easing its burden by undertaking part of the criminal business only. (fn. 153) This was the only possible line of demarcation as there was sufficient division of administrative business in Wiltshire already. Administrative business was done not in open court, but by adjournment to the Grand Jury room to which, however, the public had access. (fn. 154)
The only other way of speeding the work of the court was the delegation of business to committees, and to this the Wiltshire magistrates had been driven already. The appointment of ad hoc committees to deal with special issues was exceedingly common from the earliest days and lasted throughout the period. Committees of magistrates to investigate bills at Fisherton Anger, (fn. 155) to look into rating disputes, (fn. 156) to audit the treasurers' accounts, (fn. 157) to raise rates for the relief of Salisbury, (fn. 158) to settle disputes between a mother and her son, (fn. 159) to determine whether a particular bridge was a county bridge or not, (fn. 160) to examine the salaries of officers in the employ of the county, (fn. 161) spawned forth prolifically for every purpose. For some local purposes the divisional justices who met in petty sessions were regarded as committees of the main court. (fn. 162) Although in early years an occasional committee intended to be of more than temporary duration might be appointed, (fn. 163) it is not surprising that the appearance of anything resembling standing committees is contemporaneous with the rapid development of the county bureaucracy and the appointment of a permanent chairman in the early 19th century. In 1807 a committee was appointed with the chairman of the court at its head to take all steps for rebuilding the county prisons. (fn. 164) This naturally involved several years of responsible work, purchasing land, appointing surveyors, studying plans, making contracts and raising money. Innumerable reports were made to quarter sessions and it was not till 1817 that the committee received the thanks of the court for the way in which the business had been concluded. Even now the gaol committee could not look forward to a comfortable demise as fresh building at Fisherton was planned, (fn. 165) and since gaol design bore so close a relation to gaol policy, the committee was soon involved in certain matters of gaol administration. Still more important, a standing committee on accounts was appointed in 1824. (fn. 166) They recommended improvements in the form of the prison accounts, (fn. 167) and soon began to carry out a roving inquisition throughout the county administration. They pointed out that it would be actually cheaper to contract for the supply of bread to the prisons than to continue to make the prisoners bake their own, (fn. 168) disavowed claims for allowances, (fn. 169) showed that it cost more to feed the prisoners at Devizes than at Fisherton, (fn. 170) and examined the case of Mr. Adye, a coroner, who had been acting by deputy, prior to his prosecution. (fn. 171) In 1831 the accounts committee seems to have metamorphosed into the finance committee which like its forebear audited accounts and brought its weight to bear on county policy on matters high and low from putting a good case for the closing of Marlborough bridewell, to deducting '1s. 6d. from a bill for oiling the pump in the County Gaol, there being an error of one week in the number of weeks charged'. (fn. 172)
Thus in 1835 county government in Wiltshire wore a very different aspect from that of 1660. Quarter sessions was still a court, but at least part of the judicial business was done in a court which undertook no administration. It still employed ancient officers, but it depended much more upon its new bureaucracy, and a positive policy of improvement had largely replaced the old presentment of lapses from grace. The full sessions worked round its circuit as of old, but much business was now done in committee. (fn. 173) Even the old divisions of the county were no longer sacrosanct, and the way had been opened to a restless reforming future.
The work of county administration
It is not easy to treat this subject within the limits of the present article, for a great part of the work of county government in this period fell to the officers of parish, hundred, or manor, below the county level, or to those of ad hoc bodies such as the turnpike trusts, which stood outside the traditional administrative framework. Quarter and petty sessions, however, spent much time in compelling the lesser authorities to discharge their obligations and in settling disputes between them.
Individuals and parishes frequently neglected to repair highways. Justices in petty sessions took highway presentments; (fn. 174) quarter sessions required the inhabitants of the manor of 'Lavington' to provide annual loads of stone and gravel for road repairs. (fn. 175) There were, indeed, periodical bursts of enthusiasm for improving the roads, (fn. 176) and innumerable highway rates were ordered. (fn. 177) In 1675–6 the court also resisted an attempt of the inhabitants of Bradford to place the expense of repairing their bridge upon the county. (fn. 178) As the 18th century proceeded, quarter sessions transacted much business with the turnpike trusts which took over the management of many Wiltshire highways. In 1725 they ordered the erection of extra gates on the Devizes turnpike in the effort to prevent persistent fraud; (fn. 179) in 1735 the Calne turnpike was permitted to take up loans for repairs. (fn. 180) They examined turnpike accounts and appointed officials. (fn. 181) They settled disputes between turnpikes and private landlords, (fn. 182) and in all these ways gained a place in the turnpike administration of the county. More than the interest of quarter sessions was needed, however, before the turnpikes would produce either good roads or profits.
Wiltshire poor law business which seems to have differed little from that of other counties was also mainly a matter of supervising lesser authorities, since the chief responsibility fell on the parish. The court required or recommended reluctant parishes to support individual paupers, (fn. 183) even when the pauper was a minister who refused to subscribe to the Act of Uniformity. (fn. 184) The court often had to compel overseers of the poor to pass their accounts, (fn. 185) and were prepared to restrain those who were too ruthless in ejecting potential paupers from newly built cottages. (fn. 186) Quarter sessions also dealt with the immense number of disputes arising from the law of settlement and cognate topics. Throughout the quarter sessions records there is a sordid trail of bastardy orders, a matter closely akin to that of the poor law, as illegitimate children were among those most likely to be a burden on the rates. These poor children were commonly apprenticed to local yeomen and tradesmen as early as possible, (fn. 187) a sad fate for many, for violent opposition to pauper apprentices was not unknown amongst masters. (fn. 188) In all these affairs where quarter sessions were in effect a court of appeal, little of the nature of administrative policy could be expected to emerge. Business came before the court piecemeal, and decisions seem to have been made in the same piecemeal fashion, according to the whim or circumstances of the moment. It was not to be supposed that by this means solutions could be found for the problems of the roads, the bridges or the poverty of Wiltshire.
There were, however, other spheres in which the Wiltshire magistrates had much greater initative. They had major responsibility for the maintenance of order. This was one of the reasons why ale-houses were a source of constant concern to quarter sessions and to the Assizes. From time to time quarter or petty sessions suppressed ale-houses notorious for disorder, and in 1815 threatened to withdraw all licences from houses near Wishford bridge if any further damage was done to it. (fn. 189) Multiplication of ale-houses was also regarded as a menace because it was thought to increase the amount of pauperism. This suspicion led the court in 1674 to suppress all the ale-houses in Fisherton Anger, (fn. 190) and three years later, to the consternation of the licensees, all the ale-houses in Kingswood (now in Glos.) were suppressed at the request of the lord of the manor. (fn. 191) After the Exclusion crisis ale-houses and coffee-houses, especially in towns, became suspect as centres of propaganda subversive of the established order in Church and State, and in 1683 at the request of the grand jury, quarter sessions ordered that a certificate of conformity to the Church must be produced before any licence would be granted in the future. (fn. 192) There seems to have been no period at which the magistrates could not find notorious ale-houses to suppress, (fn. 193) and in 1831 they were still strongly of the opinion 'that in the whole the multiplication of Houses for the drinking Beer on the premises has been productive of serious evil'; off-licences were not so dangerous, (fn. 194) but in this as in other respects, the rather coarse amusements of the Wiltshire working man did not win the approval of his social betters.
A less frequent but equally potent source of disorder appeared when elections were held. In 1818 hundreds of special constables were appointed to deal with the 'tumultuous and riotous proceedings' during the election; after consultation with the neighbouring counties, quarter sessions determined to charge their expenses to the candidates. (fn. 195) At this time the Wiltshire magistrates followed the government in answering disorder arising from economic distress whether in town or country with repression. (fn. 196) After the agricultural riots in 1830 the gaols were packed. Disorder was also feared from sturdy rogues and vagabonds who as long before as 1683 had caused considerable terror in the county. (fn. 197) Stringent measures were recommended against them, but the problem of vagabonds crossing or being conveyed across the county was never solved. (fn. 198) In 1806 vagrants were a nuisance to travellers on turnpike roads between Devizes and Marlborough, (fn. 199) and in the twenties the cost of conveying thousands of Irish vagrants across the county on their way from London to Bristol became a serious item in the county budget; one magistrate threatened to resign if the law were not changed. (fn. 200) The whole question of vagrancy with its broad economic ramifications was clearly beyond the powers of the Wiltshire authorities to solve.
Religion was another matter which bore closely upon that of public order. In the Restoration period the court had its spasms of persecution against dissenters and papists, and occasionally came down hard upon a constable who did not do his duty in putting down conventicles. (fn. 201) Infrequently a parson would try to coerce his parishioners to come to church, (fn. 202) and in 1682 the assizes ordered the steward of the court leet of East Knoyle to dismiss the constables of the liberty as they were absentees from church. (fn. 203) But as elsewhere there seems to have been little systematic persecution. By 1788 toleration had so far become the normal round in Wiltshire that the Chippenham petty sessions could be warmly commended in the local press for roundly rebuking ten inhabitants of Lacock 'charged with the ringing of bells, and other noisy and shameful misdemeanours, before the Protestant Dissenting Meeting House, in Laycock..., with a view to break the peace, and discompose the minds of the people therein quietly assembled for the worship of Almighty God'. (fn. 204)
Although by 1660 the heart had gone from the Tudor system of planned economy, the Wiltshire quarter sessions still had a good deal of work in connexion with production and distribution. When corn was scarce during the Restoration period, restrictions would be placed upon malting, and regulations made for the sale of corn at market. (fn. 205) In the 18th century a sharp eye was kept upon bakers who sold bread below weight, (fn. 206) and inspectors of cloth mills were appointed. (fn. 207) In the 17th century at least the court was still settling a number of disputes about wages, but they were more often about payment of arrears than about wage-levels; (fn. 208) in the 18th century even these issues disappeared. The Wiltshire justices also had to make orders in favour of unfortunate apprentices who were abandoned and left without subsistence by their masters. (fn. 209) As regards distribution, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries quarter sessions fixed prices of food and rates of carriage across the county. (fn. 210) One of the chief concerns of the court in this field in the early 19th century was ensuring the use of accurate weights and measures. During the years 1807–8 it was resolved that the clerk of the peace should prosecute at the expense of the county all tradesmen presented by the constables for using defective weights and measures. (fn. 211) In 1820 the clerk of the peace was ordered to procure sufficient weights and measures of the type in use in Hampshire for the use of the constables. (fn. 212)
It was perhaps prison government, a branch of the administration which the magistrates in quarter sessions (despite the ancient authority of the sheriff) kept to themselves, which revealed most fully the attitude of the justices towards their work.
Besides the county gaol at Fisherton Anger there were in 1660 bridewells at Fisherton, Marlborough and Devizes. Throughout the period the cost of maintaining these establishments was the heaviest single burden upon the county rates. In 1660 the gaoler at Fisherton was removed in favour of Mary Thorpe, the widow of a royalist killed during the Interregnum, who was commended for preferment in a letter from the king to the magistrates. (fn. 213) She founded a dynasty of county gaolers. On her remarriage in 1662, she was succeeded by her husband, Matthew Best, (fn. 214) and he was followed by John and Robert Thorpe, apparently descendants of Mary by her first husband. (fn. 215) Though their professional reputation was by no means unspotted, the family managed the gaol for seventy years, and after their time the house they occupied at the gaol was rented off separately. (fn. 216) At the bridewells there were more frequent changes, partly owing to cases of default of duty among the keepers. (fn. 217) The keepers of the bridewells were paid the princely salary of £6 13s. 4d. a year; the keeper at Fisherton earned £50 a year for taking charge of the house of correction, together with £6 13s. 4d. for supervising the bridewell. As elsewhere, the intention was that the keepers should make their living from the prisoners, and it is no wonder that the latter complained of extortion. (fn. 218)
For almost a century after the Restoration the magistrates seem to have been little more concerned to maintain the fabric of their prisons than they were to pay the staff. In 1667 quarter sessions admitted decay in the building at Fisherton. (fn. 219) In the next year the gaol was presented at the assizes as being too largely occupied with the gaoler's house. (fn. 220) By 1675 the gaoler reported the prison unsafe, and in 1676 that the gaol was so weak that it would be better to keep the prisoners in the bridewell; (fn. 221) a little over a year later the windows were 'in full decay'. (fn. 222) In 1713 there was talk of enlarging and repairing the county gaol so as to hold all the prisoners in the county, but a generation later the gaol was in disrepair as the trustees whose duty it was to maintain it were mostly dead. (fn. 223) The bridewells seem to have been in an equally parlous condition. In 1660 the bridewell at Marlborough was found 'very ruinous', (fn. 224) and it was not until 1723 that, under the eye of the Marlborough sessions, substantial repairs and enlargements were made, and the keeper's salary raised to £10 a year. (fn. 225) In the middle of the 18th century at least things seem to have been somewhat better at Devizes where a part-time surveyor was appointed to keep the buildings in good order, and money was frequently laid out in repairs; (fn. 226) but in 1749 the wooden fence surrounding the bridewell had to be pulled down as beyond repair. (fn. 227) In short the record of the county in prison government in the first century of this period seems to have been dismal. As with poor law administration, the main concern was to avoid burdens upon the rates, and there were not the bursts of reforming enthusiasm which did something to achieve the maintenance of highways and bridges. By the middle of the 18th century the gaols must have been in a poor state as buildings, and useless as institutions for the reformation of criminals or the deterrence of crime. These were not objects to be attained without expense.
The second half of the 18th century, however, was to see stirrings of conscience and moves for reform. As early as 1750 orders were issued for providing the prisoners in the bridewells at Devizes and Marlborough with work. (fn. 228) In 1762 the grand jury presented the county gaol at the assizes 'for want of a proper place in the said gaol for performing divine service'. (fn. 229) A little more than a decade later, and apparently contemporaneously with the rise of the clerical element on the bench, the magistrates began to display some active concern for the welfare of the prisoners in their charge. In 1773 the keeper of the county gaol was required to keep full records, and in the following year a paid Anglican chaplain, the Revd. Mr. Israel Vanderplank, was appointed to take Sunday and midweek services. (fn. 230) At Fisherton and Devizes the salaries of the keepers were increased in lieu of certain fees they had been accustomed to take from the prisoners. (fn. 231) Although apothecaries had been employed as required earlier in the century, (fn. 232) regular appointments of surgeons and apothecaries at the gaol and bridewells were now begun, (fn. 233) and resolutions taken to rebuild the prisons in accordance with standards laid down by Act of Parliament. This first effort at reform marked out the lines of policy for the next half century. The improvement of premises, the reduction of fees, increased salaries to the gaolers, and greater attention to the welfare of the prisoners were to be the keynotes of the next half-century of prison reform.
The court began in 1776 with an attack upon fees and the abuses which they entailed, as discussed in a full report made by a commission of two. The scope for the taking of fees was reduced, and it was declared that by the bounty of the county every prisoner was entitled to receive daily 1½d. worth of bread and ½d. worth of small beer. (fn. 234) In 1782 the court was prompted by an Act of Parliament (fn. 235) to clear the way for fresh advance by investigations into affairs at Fisherton and Marlborough. It was reported that at Marlborough the prisoners' apartments, and especially those of the women, were exceedingly confined, and had no outlet to the air. It would be quite impossible to divide the prisoners into classes or set them on useful work without extension of the premises. The justices who reported on the gaol at Fisherton felt that it was useless to suggest improvements until they had secured a plan of the house of correction at Horsham (Suss.), which was said to be a model of its kind. (fn. 236) In the following year the county gaoler had his salary raised to £200 a year with £50 for turnkeys, (fn. 237) and the full truth was revealed about Fisherton by Lord William Seymour and James Sutton. They declared that even if the regulations of the recent Act were disregarded extensive repairs were necessary for the sake of the security and health of the prisoners. Upon a surveyor's estimate, such makeshift repairs would cost more than half as much as reconstructing the whole building to meet the full intentions of the Act. If the aims of the Act were fulfilled the houses of correction could become 'Houses of Punishment as well as Houses of Detention, and not places of Drunkenness, Dissoluteness and Riot' as they now were. The recently introduced improvements in the men's diet had borne fruit in better health and conduct, and should be maintained. Separate apartments should be provided for separate classes of offender, and most important of all, the women should be kept separate from the men to prevent the present 'shameful and abandoned intercourse' between them. This report was accepted by the court in full, and it was resolved to alter the county gaol so as to produce not fewer than 24 cells each of at least 560 cubic ft. (fn. 238)
These reports marked a real revolution not only in the history of Wiltshire prison administration, but also in that of county finance, for the heavy programme of building which they entailed had to be paid for partly by the creation of a county debt. In 1784 (and probably under clerical leadership as before) the magistrates filled out the original scheme by detailed resolutions. Different classes of prisoner were to be separated; and to preserve discipline, magistrates of the Salisbury division were to visit the gaol frequently, and the gaoler was to make a weekly report on discipline to the petty sessions at the Vine Inn. Condemned felons were to be allowed visits by any Protestant minister of their own persuasion. (fn. 239) Meanwhile Lord William Seymour and James Sutton (together with Lovelace Bigg) had transferred their attentions to Devizes and Marlborough, and began to spend large sums of money in rebuilding on similar lines there. (fn. 240) That these improvements came none too soon was demonstrated by an outbreak of 'putrid fever' among the prisoners at Fisherton in 1786. (fn. 241) In the belief that one of the main needs of the prisoners was plenty of honest work, spinning utensils and other equipment were installed at Marlborough. (fn. 242) Methods used in Oxford for making the prisoners contribute to their own support were also considered worth investigation. (fn. 243)
The Wiltshire magistrates found that, once raised, the issue of prison reform did not soon subside. The keeper of the Marlborough bridewell complained that there was still insufficient air in the gaol. Fresh building was ordered at all the prisons. (fn. 244) And there might well seem no end to the expense when in 1791, the grand jury at quarter sessions presented the county gaol as still inadequate to carry out the aims of the Act of 1784. (fn. 245) It appeared that there was still no bath of any kind. (fn. 246) The truth probably was that despite the reforming pressure of the clergy and aristocracy on the bench, and despite the attempt to associate the various petty sessional divisions with the reconstruction of particular gaols, the dispersal of effort native to Wiltshire administration had led to money being spent to no very good purpose. That the cost of the prisons was becoming a problem there could be no doubt. Of the county budget for the ten years 1791–1800, swollen as it was with the cost of maintaining militia men's families, over £14,600 of a total of £24,500 was absorbed by the cost of prison maintenance. (fn. 247)
It is not surprising therefore that in the last generation of the period, economy reappeared among the objects of Wiltshire prison administration. In 1803 it was forbidden to give beer to the prisoners at Devizes except on an apothecary's orders in cases of sickness; and the prison bread accounts were not paid in full as a penalty for their not being properly made out. (fn. 248) For the time at least, however, the desire for retrenchment was checked; it was now thought not merely that prisoners should be provided with honest work, but that they should be compelled to do hard labour. No sooner had the Wiltshire magistrates in 1807 come to this conclusion (with its corollary that there must be further prison building to permit the introduction of the necessary implements), (fn. 249) than they were spurred on by the presentment of the grand jury at the assizes, that the county gaol and the two bridewells were 'insufficient, inconvenient and insecure', to which charge the county had to plead guilty. (fn. 250) As in the eighties this crisis had important constitutional consequences, for it led to the appointment of the first important standing committee to advertise for plans and estimates and to see through the extensive building programme. The expense involved was great since it seemed likely that all three prisons might have to be moved owing to the limitations of space on existing sites. (fn. 251) The negotiations which the committee undertook show that the county was becoming more mature in letting its work out on contract. (fn. 252) The budget of the committee was limited to £6,000 a year, well over twice the entire county revenue for 1791.
Gradually the new gaols and more modern prison administration took shape. A new prison was opened at Devizes, on the outskirts of the town, in 1810, (fn. 253) and Fisherton gaol rebuilt on a new site in 1818–22. (fn. 254) Orders were given for prisoners to be dressed in a special uniform. (fn. 255) They were set upon building their own gaols, and when the keeper at Devizes allowed three to escape he was removed; (fn. 256) at Fisherton the death of John Willis made room for the appointment of William Dowding, who was succeeded by his nephew of the same name, a gaoler celebrated long afterwards for a book on statistics of crime in Wiltshire. (fn. 257) The new gaols built, the committee had to consider rules for their government. As a result of their deliberations, codes were drawn up, fees to gaolers further reduced, and the keepers of the two bridewells pensioned off. (fn. 258) An agreement was made with the surgeon at Devizes to attend the prisoners for all disorders upon an increased salary. Not until 1817 was the gaol and bridewell committee thanked for completing its work, and then it was asked to consider steps for rebuilding the county gaol. (fn. 259)
Even after so many years' activity there was still much to be done in Wiltshire prisons. In 1818 45 male and 9 female prisoners were crowded into a small space at the county gaol, and for want of bedding were forced to sleep two in a bed. (fn. 260) In a phrase often to be seen in the future, it was reported that there were no complaints from the prisoners! Regular visiting committees of magistrates were appointed with a view to maintaining cleanliness and strict discipline. The visiting committees were to provide sufficient linen to enable the prisoners to attend chapel decently in a clean shirt and stockings every week. That the magistrates had no doubt of the reformatory effect of cleanliness, stern discipline and hard labour, is shown by their public advertisement that of 997 prisoners committed to the new gaol at Fisherton only 21 had been committed under second convictions. (fn. 261) A worldly inducement to virtue was provided by the payment of wages and special rewards for work and good conduct. (fn. 262)
By the twenties, however, probably because of a decline in the prosperity of the county, the harsher note of retrenchment which had been struck at the beginning of the century was heard again. It was thought profitable to keep an accountant at 3 guineas a week watching the administration at Devizes over a considerable period, and the auditing of accounts was made more strict. (fn. 263) Soon afterwards the keeper at Devizes was dismissed for incompetence. (fn. 264) In 1823 really hard labour was to be introduced there by the erection of a treadmill. (fn. 265)
It was the treadmill which was to be the main item of interest for the next few years, and it seems clear that the Wiltshire magistrates needed much self-reassurance to comfort their consciences about it. In 1825 with the new prison or house of correction at Devizes in full operation, and the latest additions at Fisherton almost complete, a general survey of the situation was made. The old bridewells at Marlborough and Devizes were now used mainly for confining prisoners before trial. The new institutions at Fisherton and Devizes were well equipped with machines for hard labour. At both there was a water raising machine. At Fisherton 'the female prisoners are employed in washing ironing and other labour suitable to their sex'. At Devizes there was a handmill for grinding prison corn and the treadmill. The chaplain there considered that owing to the lack of separation among the prisoners the institution was still 'most certainly in many cases..., a step to the gallows', but the court took comfort from favourable judgements on the treadmill from the visiting justices and surgeon, and saw moral reformation in the fact that few came back for a second period on the mill. (fn. 266) Nor did they suspect anything more than mechanical imperfection in the fact that the treadmill was always breaking down. (fn. 267)
With the treadmill well established, the magistrates turned again to economy. It was found cheaper to contract for the supply of bread, than to make the prisoners bake it, (fn. 267) and similar economies seemed possible in the items of laundry and prison whitewashing. (fn. 268) It was decreed that the expense of shaving prisoners must not exceed £1 a quarter, and the duty must be undertaken by the prison servants. Worst of all the chaplain at Devizes was convicted of purchasing prayer books at the county expense for use in the house of correction and distribution to the prisoners on discharge. These were to be returned to the bookseller. (fn. 269) Even whipping in the county gaol must not cost more than half a crown per punishment. (fn. 270) A dietary was prescribed at Devizes of coarse bread, gruel, potatoes or vegetable soup, and a little biscuit for those who worked more than eight hours at the treadmill. (fn. 271) This was perhaps more substantial than of old, but lacked the luxury of small beer which had once enlivened the menu.
After all the scheming of the bench, the ventilation at Devizes was foul, (fn. 272) and when in 1830 the number of committals doubled after the agricultural riots, (fn. 273) there was a serious outbreak of 'disease of a dysenteric character' (fn. 274) and despite the purchase of flannel belts 'for the protection of the prisoners against the anticipated danger of Cholese Morbus', (fn. 275) similar epidemics occurred regularly in subsequent years. (fn. 276)
The impression conveyed by the last half century of prison government in Wiltshire in this period is predominantly one of confusion arising from the inability to sustain a policy. In the seventies and eighties Lord William Seymour, Sutton, and the reforming clergymen had a clear objective in the standards laid down by current legislation, but despite considerable expenditure, the county gaol was soon presented as inadequate at the assizes. Then followed a generation of restless alterations, improvements, expense, and sudden economy. At the end the gaols were inadequate to maintain a reasonable standard of health amongst the prisoners, and the temper of the bench was continually tried by the chaplains' comments on the evil effect of imprisonment upon the character of the prisoners. In this as in other branches of the administration, the county bureaucracy was still inadequate to guarantee continuity of policy threatened by the separatism of the quarterly sessions. Although by 1835 the gaols were doubtless better places than in the middle of the previous century, the improvement seems to have been hardly commensurate with the effort and expense.
Despite occasional bequests to the county for county purposes, (fn. 277) the mainstay of the finance of Wiltshire administration in this period was the county rate, or rather rates. For many years after 1660 rates were raised at irregular intervals for a bewildering variety of purposes, for the repair of highways, for the maintenance of county bridges, (fn. 278) and for the relief of poor prisoners. (fn. 279) There were also many transitory expenses for which they were needed. The court ordered rates to be assessed to reimburse local surveyors for the fees they had paid in the discharge of a presentment made against them for decay of highways, (fn. 280) or to repay others the expenses of making arrests of the unwary 'for speaking treasonable words', (fn. 281) or for the relief of those afflicted by the plague at Salisbury. (fn. 282) Quarter sessions also exercised a certain discretionary power over the distribution of the local poor rates; in cases where the poor rate upon any parish was excessive (£250 seems to have been regarded by the magistrates as the limit of the rate-paying capacity of a parish), (fn. 283) the burden was spread over other districts named by the court. The place most persistently in need of relief of this kind was Fisherton Anger, towards the rates of which various parishes and hundreds were called upon to contribute from time to time. (fn. 284) But there were others. (fn. 285) These questions of poor rate are cognate to the present subject owing to the gradual assimilation of the county rates to the poor rate.
The inconveniences of this system of raising funds for county business are plain enough. The raising of separate rates for innumerable items of local business might mean that properties were assessed several times over in the course of a year, and where the sums to be raised were trivial, the rates upon individual properties became absurdly small. Since it was impossible to assess small fractions of a penny, it was difficult to combine equity and efficiency in assessing small rates. In 1739 an Act provided for the raising of consolidated rates for the maintenance of highways and bridges. (fn. 286) The Wiltshire magistrates had already moved in this direction by making various miscellaneous payments out of funds earmarked for the relief of wounded soldiers or for King's Bench and Marshalsea. Nevertheless the notion of a general county income on which the quarter sessions were entitled to draw to meet legitimate expenses, was much slower to develop than its counterpart on a national level. The idea that the cost of particular county services should be charged as bills fell due to those who benefited from them, died hard, no doubt partly because of the federal nature of the county by which such great responsibility was left to the parish. In 1813 the county treasurer was empowered by quarter sessions to apply for rates whenever his balances ran low, (fn. 287) and although in the 19th century annual balance sheets were presented, there is no sign in this period of county budgeting, or of estimating expenditure a year ahead.
The assessment of county rates was always liable to be a contentious matter, and most especially in the generation following the Restoration. In 1666 the court itself admitted the need for reassessment. (fn. 288) Many appeals on rating disputes went up to quarter sessions, (fn. 289) and not a few beyond to the assizes (fn. 290) or Court of King's Bench. In 1661 long-standing disputes came to a head between 'the inhabitants of Porton, Gombleton and Idmiston touching the way... of making rates... some of the said parish endeavouring to raise the same by a pound rate, others by the yardland'. At the following sessions counsel were heard on both sides, and the court ordered that henceforth the rates should be made 'according to the yardland... as heretofore... and not by a pound rate or any other way'. (fn. 291) There were subsequent cases at Beechingstoke and Aldbourne, where the court again ordered assessments to be made by the yardland. (fn. 292) Sometimes, however, quarter sessions favoured assessment by pound rate. (fn. 293) In towns in Wiltshire it seems to have been customary to assess stock in trade to the rates. In 1682 quarter sessions confirmed the custom at Westbury whereby those with stock in trade were assessed according to the value of the stock and those with both land and stock in trade in the parish were assessed according to the most valuable and not according to both. (fn. 294) It is not clear what the relative values of stock in trade and land were held to be, but on some valuation stock seems to have been assessed in most of the Wiltshire towns in the 18th century, and notably in Trowbridge and Warminster. In 1777 an appeal against this system by Francis Hill, a clothier at Bradford, led to an important decision in the Court of King's Bench. (fn. 295) It was held that where it was customary to rate stock in trade, such rates were valid, and although the decision did not go beyond the narrow ground of customary rating, it seems to have been regarded by judges in the next generation as establishing the ratability of stock in trade everywhere. (fn. 296) Other property such as an underground freestone quarry at Monkton Farleigh might also give rise to highly technical cases in the courts. (fn. 297) Commercial and industrial property was thus called upon to bear a share of the Wiltshire rates, but in 1830 land still bore a disproportionate burden. Of the sums raised in poor and county rates at that date, 84.3 per cent, was assessed on land, 13.2 per cent, on dwelling houses, 1.8 per cent. on mills, factories, &c, and 0.7 per cent. on manorial profits and incidents. For England and Wales as a whole, the comparable figures were 68.8, 26.1, 3.7, and 1.4. (fn. 298) The rural character of the county is borne out in the small assessment on houses, but in view of the industrial past of the county one would have expected a greater proportion on industrial installations.
It seems probable therefore that a variety of assessment practices prevailed in Wiltshire, with quarter sessions favouring the rating of land now by the yardland, now by pound rate, and attempting to secure some return from stock in trade. Sometimes the court stooped to fix the rates even upon individual ratepayers. (fn. 299) There were nevertheless periodical complaints about injustices of assessment, and the court is found ordering the rate at Somerford to be remade, or requiring rates to be made upon the land of the bailliff and burgesses at Chippenham. (fn. 300) A suspicious feature of the appeals to quarter sessions is that there seems to be no case where an appeal by one of the Wiltshire peers was unsuccessful. Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Pembroke, and Lord Weymouth, all gained reductions on their properties. (fn. 301) After the introduction of a consolidated county rate under the Act of 1739 a county rate became recognized as the fixed sum of £125 18s. 9d. and when four, six, or eight rates were voted at quarter sessions it was understood that so many multiples of this sum were to be raised. While the expenditure of the county was light this system went on without much cavil, but in 1810 a move was made to apply to Parliament for a new county rate, a move which as we have seen foundered on lack of unanimity among the various divisions of the county. (fn. 302) In this year no fewer than 30 rates were ordered.
In 1815, however, an Act for amending the County Rates Acts went through, (fn. 303) and the court prepared to consider it in the light of county opinion. (fn. 304) After first deciding to do nothing, (fn. 305) in 1817 quarter sessions resolved that the present rate was in many ways 'unequal and defective, property to a large amount being omitted, and other property being rated very unequally', and appointed a committee to make a new rate under the recent Act (fn. 306) and the series of amending Acts. (fn. 307) The committee determined to make the new rate upon the basis of schedules A and B of the old Property Tax. Unexpected obstacles appeared owing to the destruction of the government surveyor's books, but by Michaelmas 1818 the rate had been completed on this basis for the whole county, and the clerk of the peace was directed to prepare a hundred rate upon this basis to serve when there were actions against hundreds. (fn. 308) The new rate was finally adopted in January 1819 and published along with the discarded assessments. This new rate served the county adequately until 1841. Rateable property in the county was reckoned at £1,183,566 18s. 4d. and on this basis a rate of 2½d. per cent, would produce £123 5s. 9d.—very nearly the old county rate.
The Wiltshire quarter sessions, however, was less commonly concerned with reforming the county rate than with enforcing payment by the constables and ratepayers. Occasionally the court gave orders to the nearest magistrate or pair of magistrates to bind over delinquent ratepayers to the next sessions. (fn. 309) Sometimes surveyors of highways were empowered to distrain upon those who refused to pay the highway rate. (fn. 310) Later in the 18th century the court would empower the county treasurer to take proceedings for raising the arrears, and place advertisements to this effect in the local newspapers. (fn. 311) Part of the arrears was usually in the hands of the constables upon whom fell the duty of collecting the rates from the parishes within their hundred, and quarter sessions made endless attempts to wring their balances from them. In 1691 the court called on all the magistrates to summon the local constables before them, to examine their accounts and require payment of their balances to the treasurers. (fn. 312) In 1785 after warning had been given, the court ordered process to issue against constables who did not pay over their balances before a short date. (fn. 313) In 1789 process issued against the constables of twelve hundreds for not paying the county rates. (fn. 314) Endless pressure of this kind proved necessary, and at least one constable found himself in gaol for his sins. (fn. 315) Sometimes reassessments of uncollected rates were made, (fn. 316) but it was not unknown for the court to be forced to write off arrears of rates altogether. (fn. 317)
The total expenditure of the county increased with the passing of time. The single item of bridges and adjacent highways grew steadily, for the county was the residuary legatee of all bridges the maintenance of which was not clearly the responsibility of some other authority. Early in the period not many bridges are heard of outside the Salisbury area, (fn. 318) but by 1825 there were between 40 and 50 bridges, with adjacent roads of about 4¾ miles to be kept in repair under heavier traffic. (fn. 319) During this period too the salaries of county servants had increased both in number and in size, and standards of prison accommodation had also risen. These liabilities were reflected in the county rates. In 1746 eight rates totalling just over £1,000 were raised, (fn. 320) and this was roughly the normal income of the county till 1759, when, with the expense of the militia to be met, 22 rates were ordered. (fn. 321) After this the county revenue shrank to its old size, until the eighties when a steady increase began. Eight rates were ordered in 1780, ten in 1781, 24 in 1783, and the subsequent years in which the cost of rebuilding the county prisons was felt. (fn. 322) In 1801 quarter sessions ordered the publication of the county expenditure for the previous ten years, and it was revealed that the county budget had risen by 50 per cent, within the decade, from £2,706 3s. 4¾d. in 1791 to £4,050 1s. 9½d. in 1800. (fn. 323) The heaviest new item was the support of militia men's families. In 1811 it was calculated that almost £30,500 had been raised in rates in the previous five years, no less than £11,344 being for 1810. (fn. 324) Small wonder that a move was made in that year for the reform of the county rate. By 1830 the county rates totalled almost £14,500, and were only one item to be faced by the local ratepayer. Highway rates amounted to £21,231, church rates to £8,851, and poor rates and the like to over £175,000. In all £220,125 was raised in rates of various kinds, which amounted to 3s. 9¾d. in the pound upon the total rateable value of the county. At this figure Wiltshire was slightly above the national average of 3s. 8d., but if Wiltshire ratepayers were worse off than those of Northumberland who paid 1s. 7½d., they probably fared better than their fellows in Bedfordshire and Sussex who paid 6s. 2d. and 6s. 9¾d. respectively. (fn. 325) It is unfortunately impossible to say how the accuracy of the assessments in one county compared with that in others. However, on county rates alone, Wiltshire paid rather less than the national average.
Of these heavy assessments it was only the comparatively small sums of the county rate that passed through the treasurer's hands. In the middle of the 18th century he had a turnover of £1,000 a year and a balance at the end of the year of about £200 or more. (fn. 326) In 1780 the comparable figure was £364, and in 1805 the treasurer had a turnover of £6,765 16s. 9d. and a final balance of £2,226. (fn. 327) In 1813 he was required to keep £2,000 in hand and empowered to apply for a rate every time his balances fell below that sum. (fn. 328) These sums though not large, were sufficient to make the tenure of office worth while for the county treasurer in the days before he was paid a reasonable stipend. Even in the early days after the Restoration while there were still four treasurers, there may have been some small profit, for the examination of accounts was usually a haphazard business entrusted to a committee of magistrates, and treasurers were not always ready to hand over their balances to their successors. (fn. 329) Auditing was later improved however; in 1674 the treasurers were ordered to deliver their accounts annually, (fn. 330) and in 1731 after a permanent county treasurer had been appointed the court required his accounts to be passed annually at quarter sessions and to be signed by not fewer than five justices. (fn. 331)
As the county revenue increased so did the responsibilities of the treasurer. More serious than the amount of money he had to handle was the increasing complexity of county business. Although in 1693 a bridge-building committee incurred a debt owing to the slow yield of the county rates, (fn. 332) it was not till 1785 that the foundations of a real county debt were laid. Then the expense of rebuilding the county prisons made plain the inconvenience of meeting capital expenditure from current income, and it was determined to spread the burden by taking up a loan of £2,000 under the authority of the Act of 24 Geo. III Sess. 2. c.54. (fn. 333) In 1791 when the county gaol was presented at the assizes, another loan of £2,000 at 4½ per cent. was taken up to meet the expenses of reconstruction. (fn. 334) In subsequent years numerous loans of this kind were made for ever larger sums, (fn. 335) and in 1818 the rate of interest went up to 5 per cent. The magistrates themselves signed the securities issued by the court. (fn. 336) Among the first creditors of the county was the clerk of the peace, (fn. 337) and in 1813 the county treasurer lent the county £1,000, (fn. 338) but from the beginning the Wiltshire securities found ready takers from all classes in the county with money to spare. In 1818 county creditors held shares in the county debt from £2,550 down to £50, and included local gentlemen and esquires, half a dozen spinsters and a doctor's wife, a surgeon, a baker, two yeomen, and a blacksmith. (fn. 339) That 5 per cent. interest with gilt-edged security was no mean attraction is illustrated by the appearance of investors from Dublin and Worthing—though both bore well-known Wiltshire names. (fn. 340) In 1824 quarter sessions determined that the time was ripe for a conversion of the county debt, and the clerk of the peace was instructed to write to the various mortgagees offering them the choice of 4 per cent. interest or the redemption of their holdings. (fn. 341) By this date the management of the Wiltshire debt had become quite sophisticated.
With the taking up of large loans, the county often had considerable sums in hand before bills fell due. The county therefore became a lender in its turn, and in both 1809 and 1819 large sums were invested in Exchequer bills through Hoare's Bank, (fn. 342) which fittingly enough had been founded by the ancestors of the county historian, Sir Richard Colt Hoare bt. By this time the county treasurer was a busy officer indeed, compelling the payment of rates, handling a turnover sometimes approaching £30,000 and managing both the debts and the credits of the county.