Wilton: Modern town government and poor relief

A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1962.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


'Wilton: Modern town government and poor relief', A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6, (London, 1962), pp. 21-24. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol6/pp21-24 [accessed 21 June 2024].

. "Wilton: Modern town government and poor relief", in A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6, (London, 1962) 21-24. British History Online, accessed June 21, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol6/pp21-24.

. "Wilton: Modern town government and poor relief", A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6, (London, 1962). 21-24. British History Online. Web. 21 June 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol6/pp21-24.

In this section


In great contrast to the early period of its growth, when ancient custom became established by prescription, the town government of Wilton was, from the 16th century onwards, constantly subject to attempts at definition by charter or by-law. As time went on observations made on the charters revealed increasingly how much of the earlier medieval procedure had become stereotyped, and how much was falling into disuse and being forgotten.

According to Hoare, a charter of incorporation was granted in the reign of Henry VIII, (fn. 1) and established a governing body consisting of the mayor, recorder, 5 aldermen, 3 capital burgesses, 11 common council men, a town clerk and other officials; this last general group included the portreeve, bailiffs, constables and other of the surviving guild officials, such as the steward, market officials and ale-tasters, who made up the elective body of town officers. This charter, if it ever existed, would have done little more than recognize an already existing state of affairs, although it gave more prominence to the borough aldermen than hitherto. There were five wards, namely, Kingsbury, East Street, West Street, South Street and Minster Street; the ward aldermen made presentments in court concerning offences in their wards against the by-laws of the town, and most of these offences concerned damage to property by stray pigs and other farm animals. Pleas of debt were also held in these courts of aldermen, and certain sales on which customary tolls were levied were recorded, as for example the sale of bay gelding by a Welshman to a servant of the Earl of Pembroke in 1570, (fn. 2) on which a toll was exacted according to the custom of the borough. It is not possible to say at what point these courts of ward aldermen were established, for the series of minute books recording their proceedings only dates from the reign of Elizabeth I, but possibly the formal association of five aldermen in the town government may have been the starting point of this procedure.

The developments of the 16th century all point to the conclusion that town government was passing into the hands of a narrow oligarchy. Most burgesses showed themselves indifferent to the fulfilment of their civic duties, refusing to contribute towards the expenses of ceremony, and neglecting to attend town meetings; this last indifference contributed more than anything else towards the growth of oligarchy. In 1494 it became necessary to penalize men who were elected mayor and refused to serve by a fine of £20 to the king and £10 to the burgesses. (fn. 3) In 1527 it was laid down that the burgesses should be summoned to appear before the mayor in council by the serjeant of the mace, who should sound the great bell of Holy Trinity Church for 80 strokes. There was to be an appropriate fine if the mayor, the serjeant of the mace, or the burgesses defaulted in any way. (fn. 4) In 1544 the fine for refusing to act as mayor was reduced to 40s., (fn. 5) but in 1585 it was agreed that whoever bore the office of mayor and was not present at election day should forfeit £5. (fn. 6) In 1619 the common council ordained that every master and burgess should accompany the mayor to and from his house to church on all feast days, (fn. 7) while in 1624 it was further ordained that every burgess must provide himself with a gown before the following Christmas to attend the mayor in church on pain of expulsion from the company; these gowns were to be worn on every feast day under penalty of 1s. fine. (fn. 8) These examples show the extent to which the civic pride of the past had departed, and the wish felt, at any rate in some quarters, to revive it. The more important borough offices passed into the hands of a relatively small group of the wealthier men, among whom the richer 16th-century clothiers were most prominent, (fn. 9) and the affairs of the borough were henceforth in the hands of a very narrow circle.

The conflicts of the 17th century affected Wilton in common with most other boroughs. During the Civil Wars Wilton House was garrisoned by the royalists, (fn. 10) and it was possibly in consequence of this that during the interregnum the county court was removed from Wilton, only returning at the Restoration. In 1665 it appeared that the court was again to be moved to Devizes, but the king in a letter to the high sheriff forbade this in view of the ancient privileges and usages, and the state and condition of Wilton. (fn. 11)

The attack upon the borough corporations that the closing years of Charles II's reign witnessed resulted at Wilton in the surrender of their charter in October 1684. (fn. 12) The surrender was delivered by Lord Pembroke, and contained a clause saving his liberties and those of his friends. James II issued a new charter in 1685 which limited the corporation to the high steward, mayor, recorder, and 34 burgesses, of whom the mayor was to be one, the style of the corporation being 'the Mayor and Burgesses of the Borough of Wilton'. Four days after the grant the mayor and burgesses named in the new charter were sworn. In the course of 1688 many of the burgesses were disfranchised, and others elected in their place in conformity with orders in council. In October 1688, however, in pursuance of the earlier order in council then issued quashing most charters issued since 1679, the old burgesses were restored, and elected a mayor. But the charter of James II seems to have remained partially in force until the 19th century, for in 1790, it was stated that in some respects the corporation was governed by the directions contained in that charter. (fn. 13) The attempt to define the number of burgesses was in itself an innovation, which was certainly ignored; at the election of October 1688 the burgesses numbered 41, and subsequent figures showed that up to the middle of the 18th century the number might vary between 34 and 82. (fn. 14)

The whole position was so uncertain that the hundred or so years following the charter of 1685 witnessed constant and usually fruitless attempts at precise definition by the framing of by-laws, and finally, at the end of the 18th century, by suggestions for a new charter. Many of the provisions made towards this end were mutually contradictory; in 1691, for example, it was stated that there must be 24 hours notice of a common council, and that this council must consist of at least 16 burgesses; a few months later the number of the council was reduced to the mayor and 10 burgesses, (fn. 15) while in 1706 it was agreed that a common council should consist of the mayor and 25 burgesses and that all must have 48 hours notice of the meeting. (fn. 16) The by-laws of 1691 relating to the chamber of the borough, which had superseded the guild purse as the borough treasury by the 17th century, established rather more rigid rules for rendering account at the annual audit, and constituted the recorder instead of the previous year's mayor as ex officio auditor of the four auditors of the borough. (fn. 17) No attempt was ever again made to fix the number of burgesses, but in 1699 it was agreed that no one should be eligible for burgesship who had not an estate within the borough worth £50, while the total number of burgesses should not exceed 91. (fn. 18)

In 1790 the project of a new charter came under serious consideration. So little was recalled, however, either of the origin or of the validity of constitutional practice, that it was generally agreed that, in spite of the charter of James II, Wilton possessed a constitution by prescription only, and that it would be advisable for the corporation to have certain written rules. But when certain specific questions were put it was evident from the answers that little was known of Wilton's past history before the late 15th century when the Corporation Entry Book begins. Since many of the borough offices originated in the 13th and 14th centuries there existed some considerable confusion when an attempt was made to graft a modern constitution upon ancient precedent.

The discussions of 1790 did not, however, result in the framing of a new charter and fresh discussions, which opened in 1816, were equally without result, so that it was not until 1832, when the bounds of the parliamentary borough were re-drawn, that the constitution received an official definition. It was, however, only a definition of already existing practice, for the corporation was described as consisting of a mayor, recorder, high steward and 5 aldermen, besides an unlimited number of burgesses, who could be increased at will by the corporation. The official body was said to include also a town clerk, 2 serjeants-at-mace, 4 constables, and other inferior officers. The composition of this governing body was thus substāntially the same as that of the early 16th century, although much of it was meaningless by the 19th century.

In 1884 the inhabitant householders of the borough petitioned for the grant of a municipal charter of incorporation under the provisions of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882, proposing that the boundaries of the new borough should be identical with those of the parish. As a result, however, of petitions from certain householders in Ditchampton, Fugglestone, and South Newton the boundary was extended to make the new borough co-extensive with the town or built-up area. (fn. 19) The Borough of Wilton scheme, approved in 1885, adjusted the existing rights of the old corporation to the new municipal borough in all matters, including property, market rights, and charities. The governing body established under the new charter creating the municipal borough by Order in Council, 15 May 1885, consisted of a mayor, 4 aldermen and 12 councillors; the election of the mayor was to follow immediately after that of the aldermen and town councillors; the aldermen and town council were to retire by thirds each year beginning with the thirds which had received the lowest number of votes. The first councillors were elected on 1 November 1885, and the first mayor and aldermen on 9 November 1885, on which day the first meeting of the borough council was held. Thus Wilton among the last of the old corporations, was brought into line with municipal development in England, and the charter swept away the last vestiges of the medieval borough. (fn. 20)

The 19th century witnessed the gradual provision of the more modern amenities of town life; this aspect of local government had taken place to some considerable extent well before the final emergence of the modern town government in 1885. In 1832 most of the modern amenities were almost entirely lacking; Wilton was policed as formerly by two elected head constables, and two petty constables, who succeeded them in due course; the town was only partially lighted and watchmen only occasionally appointed, both by private subscription in the absence of any local Act providing for these services. But the following fifty or sixty years witnessed great developments based, of course, on the organization set up under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, and extended to other purposes.

The Public Health Act, 1848, was applied to the whole parish of Wilton in 1855; (fn. 21) this followed a virulent outbreak of cholera at Wilton in midSeptember 1854. The outbreak caused great alarm, especially since at the time the parish and the suburbs were surrounded by more than 200 navvies at work on the construction of the adjoining railway. A temporary hospital was built on a site adjoining the workhouse garden, supported by a liberal subscription from the parish, but it was not used since the outbreak was arrested by February 1855. (fn. 22) The whole parish was included in the Wilton Urban Sanitary District when it was set up in 1873. (fn. 23)

In 1854 it was proposed to light the town with gas, and the Wilton Gas Company purchased a site outside the borough at the back of the workhouse garden. (fn. 24) There was no public lighting on the Warminster road near the carpet factory, but gas was supplied to private houses there. (fn. 25) In 1887 the town council proposed to purchase all works, plant, goodwill and effects from the company and to supply gas within their district for public and private purposes. A loan of £4,050 was sanctioned for this purpose, and by the Wilton Gas Order of 1888 the corporation was authorized to make the purchase and to supply gas in the parishes of Wilton, Burcombe, Fugglestone St. Peter, and South Newton. (fn. 26) In 1935 the gas-works were closed and Wilton became dependent upon Salisbury for its supply of gas. (fn. 27) Electricity was not brought to Wilton until 1928. (fn. 28)

Reports of the medical officer of health for the urban sanitary district frequently underlined the inadequacy of the water supply. The report for the year ending 1877, for example, stated that the water supply of Wilton was intermittent, hours of supply extending only from 5.30 a.m. until 10 p.m., allowing for 35 gallons a head, although it was stressed that there existed no manufacturing industries requiring large quantities of water; the chief danger was that of epidemics capable of diffusion by water supply. (fn. 29) In due course these defects were remedied and the water undertaking of the council satisfactorily supplied Wilton, Quidhampton, and Netherhampton.


The problem of poor relief in Wilton had become acute by the 17th century, and was especially serious during periods of depression in the textile industry. (fn. 30) Attempts were made to apprentice some of the sons of poor men to the textile trade, but there was not always sufficient employment in Wilton to absorb them; thus in 1631 the three overseers of the poor of the borough and parish, and the churchwardens with the assent of the mayor and the justices of the peace, apprenticed the sixteen-year old Isaac Elliott, son of a Wilton broadweaver, to a broadweaver of New Salisbury. (fn. 31) In 1646 the mayor accused the overseers of the poor before the Quarter Sessions of complete neglect of their duty in time of plague; it appears most of the poor were at this period lodged in the almshouses of St. Giles at Fugglestone, where some forty of them had sickened with plague, while others were in almshouses at Wilton; the justices ordered that 40s. should be raised weekly in the hundred, but at the October Sessions Wilton petitioned for a general tax upon the county or adjacent parts; it was ordered that £30 should be granted to the poor, but another petition in the following January showed that distribution had been slow. (fn. 32)

Very full details of receipts and disbursements of money for poor relief have survived in the parish records; they refer mostly to the 18th century, but some exist for the late 17th century. (fn. 33) From October 1672 to September 1673 £15 16s. 1d. was received from the county for the poor of Wilton; from October 1673 to September 1674 the mayor received £19 16s. from the county, and £20 from the Earl of Pembroke; of this, £33 4s. 6d. was paid to the poor, a further 5s. to the sick poor, 7s. 6d. towards the costs of apprenticeship, £2 1s. for making clothes for the poor, and the remainder in sundry expenses.

By the beginning of the 18th century at least, a poorhouse had been established in Wilton; it belonged to the corporation and was rented by the parish, and the vestry appointed the master and fixed his salary. In 1741 the overseers paid the corporation a rent of £6 a year for the workhouse, (fn. 34) but by 1832 the rent had risen to £18 13s. 6d. a year. Poor rates steadily increased so that between 1810 and 1812 they were as high as £1 1s. in the £ on a valuation which was three-quarters of real value, and although, on the same valuation, they had dropped to 17s. in the £ by 1831, the Wilton poor rate was still four times as great as that of the neighbouring parishes. (fn. 35) In 1834 Wilton became the centre of the newly-formed Wilton Poor Law Union and the relief of Wilton's poor was taken over by the Wilton Board of Poor Law Guardians. By March 1835, of the £8,811 spent by the union on relief, £2,561 was devoted to the parish of Wilton, and of the 170 ablebodied men, who were unemployed during the winter, 40 or 50 came from Wilton alone. (fn. 36) The union workhouse was opened on the outskirts of Wilton, just within the parish of South Newton, in 1837. (fn. 37)


  • 1. Hoare, Mod. Wilts. Branch and Dole, 55. No such charter has survived, and no other reference to it has been found.
  • 2. Min. Bks. among Wilton Corp. MSS.
  • 3. Wilton Corp. MSS. General Entry Bk. f. 70.
  • 4. Ibid. f. 116.
  • 5. Ibid. f. 166.
  • 6. Ibid. f. 250.
  • 7. Ibid. f. 321.
  • 8. Ibid. f. 325.
  • 9. See p. 25.
  • 10. V.C.H. Wilts. v. 141.
  • 11. Wilton Corp. MSS. General Entry Bk. f. 435, and see p. 16.
  • 12. Wilton Corp. MSS. General Entry Bk. ff. 471, 474.
  • 13. Ibid. Memoranda, extracts and correspondence about a new charter.
  • 14. Ibid. Copy of observations on the charters, 1810.
  • 15. Ibid. General Entry Bk. ff. 573, 515.
  • 16. Ibid. Abstract from first Corporation Min. Bk.
  • 17. Ibid. General Entry Bk. f. 573.
  • 18. Ibid. Abstract from first Corporation Min. Bk.
  • 19. See p. 1.
  • 20. M. H. 12/13899.
  • 21. Ibid.
  • 22. M. H. 12/13895.
  • 23. M. H. 12/13897.
  • 24. M. H. 12/13895.
  • 25. M. H. 12/13899.
  • 26. M. H. 12/13900.
  • 27. Ex inf. Mr. G. C. Moody.
  • 28. Ex inf. Southern Electricity Board.
  • 29. M. H. 12/13898.
  • 30. See p. 26.
  • 31. Wilton Corp. MSS. Apprenticeship Bond.
  • 32. Hist. MSS. Com. Var. Coll. i. p. iii.
  • 33. For some account of the parish records see Wilts. Borough Recs. (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), 88.
  • 34. Wilton Corp. MSS. Overseers' accts.
  • 35. App. Rep. Munic. Corps. H.C. 116, p. 1402 (1835), xxiv.
  • 36. M. H. 12/13892.
  • 37. M. H. 12/13893.