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Poole Governance, 1580-1730

Author: Peter Dawes

Independence and early development

Poole was created an independent County Borough (a “county corporate”) by the Charter 10 Elizabeth 23 June 1568.  Ten years earlier, during the first year of her reign, the Queen had issued letters patent confirming the Longespee Charter of 1248 and subsequent charters granted by the lords of the manor of Canford.

Before 1568, municipal records had been scarce and this had not been helped by the destruction of many records by the executors of a former town clerk.  However, after this date, the quality of the records improved significantly.

Previously, the main authority of the Borough had been vested in the Mayor.  He was appointed by the lord of the manor or his steward from among six individuals nominated by the burgesses at large and presented at the annual court-leet.  However, the process had gradually changed and latterly in effect the appointment was made direct by the jurors of the court-leet.  At the same time, another group had assumed increasing importance in the governance of the Borough.  Variously termed “the council” or “the assistants” or subsequently “the bench” they were effectively the exclusive and self-electing body comprising the jurors of the court-leet themselves.  This arose in part as a result of the reduction in the overall jurisdiction of the court-leet and by the comparative growth in importance of the municipal duties.  The authority of the assistants was not recognised by the 1568 Charter; although it appears to have survived beyond the grant until the emergence of the superstructure of a select privileged body.

By 1568, there were three clear categories of burgess:

  • Those legally recognised and possessing the required qualification of scot and lot residency;
  • The court of assistants which grew out of the court-leet jury;
  • Those burgesses made or elected by consent of the council.

For many years previously, the practice had grown up widely throughout England of creating fictitious burgess-ships (known as “making burgesses”) for those selected to represent a borough in Parliament.  At the time, Parliamentary representation was regarded as a burdensome duty of burgess-ship rather than a privilege.  There was therefore little reluctance to relinquish such duty to those who would pay the wages of the representatives. The practice became increasingly frequent but it was not without some jealousy on the part of the existing burgesses. In Poole, several merchants who did not own property in the Town were admitted as burgesses during the period 1583—1590; the first was William Pyttee of Weymouth on 16 March 1583.

By becoming a county corporate, the Town and its inhabitants became exempt from many onerous and expensive duties although the Borough was still subject to the authority of the lord lieutenant of Dorset.

From about this time, there was a gradual evolution of municipal transactions in the Town tending towards the establishment of the powers of a governing body: select, exclusive and self-elected.  Courts-leet were rapidly falling into disuse and the rights of ancient burgesses were gradually passing into abeyance—assisted to some extent by their own inaction).  In part this was helped by the fact that, hitherto, the Borough had acted on principles which were acceptable to the majority of ancient burgesses.

Henceforth, governance broadly comprised the Mayor, Aldermen, council of assistants and the made burgesses (recorded in the Borough).  Burgesses obtained the power of choosing their Mayor free from any manorial interference, although initially there was some reluctance from the incumbent lord of the manor, Lord Mountjoy.

Non-resident burgesses’ privilege was confined to exercising the paid franchise and this gradually gave rise to the fiction that burgess-ship was conferred on strangers as a mark of honorary distinction.  The evolution of the constitution of the governing body was slow and firmly established and recognised only in the mid-17th century:

  • 17 September 1631: an order that burgesses be created solely from inhabitants of the Town.
  • 3 November 1645: free burgess enjoyed privileges only if an inhabitant of the Town.
  • 7 August 1695: similarly, only resident burgesses could vote in the election of the mayor, JP Service, bailiff, etc.

However, as confirmed by the House of Commons in 1661, external burgesses could continue to enjoy the privileges of parliamentary representation.

Despite the importance of the 1568 charter in promoting the prosperity of Poole by stimulating commerce, the effect on the machinery of municipal government was relatively small.  Whilst the election of the Mayor became a matter solely for the burgesses, there is some doubt whether this right was ever fully enjoyed by the burgesses at large and the custom was finally abolished by judicial decision in 1810

2        Influence of King Charles II

On the restoration of King Charles II, an act was passed whereby magistrates and holders of office in the Borough had to swear not to take arms against the King and to renounce the oath termed the Solemn League and Covenant.  This affected Poole significantly, given its stance in the wars of rebellion arising from its strong Presbyterian presence.  Quite a few removals were made by the visiting commissioners on their visit on 17 October 1662 and all future officers had to be communicant members of the Church of England.

Charles II himself visited Poole on 24 September 1665 and nominated Will Skutt to the mayoralty.  However, this was rejected by the burgesses as they were reluctant to allow the prerogative of the Crown to extend so far.

The Charter 19 Charles II was granted to the Borough on 24 November 1667.  This ratified that all liberties and privileges lawfully used and enjoyed hitherto be confirmed.  Additional privileges included:

  • Appointment of 4 constables (an increase of 2)
  •  Appointment of a Recorder or town clerk (lawyer) but this had to be pre-approved by the King
  • Appointment of Justices of the Peace
  • Sheriff and Water Bailiff to be elected from among the common burgesses.

The Charter also confirmed that a fish market, in existence in the Borough from time immemorial, could continue to be held by custom.  All fish had to be offered for sale for one hour in the market before they could be taken elsewhere for sale.

Overall, the resulting situation was that:

  • The Borough was able to make bye-laws.
  • Burgesses could be appointed to offices but could be fined if they refused.
  • There remained two classes of burgess.
  • The Mayor, bailiffs and burgesses could fine absentees from regular meetings.
  • The Borough was authorised to levy local taxes for municipal purposes.
  • No writ of quo warranto would be issued in respect of any actions before the issue of the Charter.
  • All officers were required to take an oath of obedience and supremacy before taking up appointment.

This document (plus the one granted by Elizabeth I previously) formed the basis of local government in Poole until 1 January 1836 when the provisions of the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 came into force.

3        Seizure of Borough Charter

Near the end of his reign, Charles II attempted to make a virtually universal (throughout the country) seizure of borough charters by writs of quo warranto.  Poole was included: quo warranto 27 June 1683 (35 Car II).  It was likely that Poole had shown a stronger spirit than the King had anticipated on the grant of the Charter 19 Charles II.

Poole burgesses made a long and humble submission to the King dated 19 September 1683.  This was favourably received by the King, as reported back by the emissary Benjamin Skutt.  He was then instructed by the burgesses to report that the Borough of Poole was willing to accede to any conditions required by the King (letter to Benjamin Skutt 8 October 1683).

However, despite the submission being favourably received, it transpired that the ‘matter’ was not then satisfactorily arranged and judgement was entered against the Borough in the spring/summer 1864 which effectively took away local privileges granted in all previous charters.

Thus the JPs appointed on 15 February 1683 (35 Car II 1682-3) remained in place.

In between quo warranto and the charter of 4 Jac II, the lord of the manor held courts-leet in Poole and attempted unsuccessfully to recover his ancient right of electing a mayor.  The duties were undertaken by John Wyndham of Salisbury, appointed by (central) commission.

4        Restoration of Borough Status

The general aim of the forced surrender of charters was not to destroy the existence of the corporations but to remodel the boroughs by new charters to bring them more under the influence of the Crown, reserving right of removal to officers of the Crown.   Thus the Charter 4 Jac II (15 September 1688) along these lines was issued to Poole which was to be a county borough along with many other administrative matters.

However, this charter was so distasteful to the inhabitants that it was rejected as representing a rejection of the dangerous encroachments on the liberty of the subject.

This was part of a more widespread spirit of resistance to the arbitrary measures of James II.  He had overreached his despotic views and as a result, the acts of the last few weeks of his reign included the grant of charters of complete restoration to the Borough of Poole without any of the objectionable provisions in the rejected charter. 4 Jac II 8 December 1688.

The charter of restitution was obtained by the influence of Sir Nathaniel Napier who bore the expenses.  The new charter was promulgated in Poole on 24 December 1688 and the restored officers were duly sworn in. Thereafter, the course of municipal government in Poole continued uniformly down to the alterations effected by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 (5+6 Wm IV c76).

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