At the start of the 18th century, the only local authority entities that existed in England and Wales were the county governed by justices of the peace in Quarter Sessions, the borough with its Town Council and the Parish with its Vestry.
The institution of the County had originally been largely representative. The earl, bishop and other magnates attended in their own right and each township was represented by its reeve and four best men. When the Shire became the County, the Shire-Court became the County Court, representatives ceased to attend, and the County meetings consisted solely of landowners.
Ultimately the management of the county fell into the hands of the justices of the peace, appointed by the Crown over which ratepayers had no control. This continued until 1888. Ironically, the elective input in the counties diminished even as the reform legislation extended the franchise.
Boroughs were self-governing institutions which excluded the majority of the population. The councillors were largely self-elected. They held office for life. They were selected on political grounds. Borough officers and freemen were also selected on these grounds. Corporate revenues were expended largely for political ends.
A relatively small number of freemen enjoyed privileges in local government often, less than 1% of the population. In many cases, freeman enjoyed trading privileges or were exempt from the law Political corruption was rife. Conflicts of interests arose between officers and corporations. Contracts were awarded to connected persons. Officers prospered from their offices.
In most boroughs, the Aldermen were magistrates by virtue of their office. Juries consisted of freemen and the administration of justice had a political partisanship. Apart from the political bias, many were incompetent to discharge judicial office.
Municipal Government Reform
The Reform Act of 1832 brought in a new regime. The first Reform Parliament established a Royal commission to inquire into the municipalities. The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 swept away most of the old system and modernized local government. The Act of 1835 was amended on numerous occasions and was then consolidated in the Municipal Corporations Act, 1882.
The Municipal Corporations Act removed magisterial powers from aldermen. The recorder must be a trained lawyer. It abolished trading monopolies, exemptions and restrictions. It reduced the tenure of elective offices. The franchise was given to all inhabitant ratepayers. Provisions were made for honest administration and efficient discharge of duty. The Act did not apply to London to which separate legislation applied.
At the start of the 18th century, the Parish in England became a unit for substantial amount of administration. In much earlier times, it had swallowed up the Saxon township, the Norman vill, and the feudal manor. Manorial courts had long largely ceased to be a factor in local government. Some Courts Leet and Courts Baron did survive, and, in some cases, the Lord of the Manor retained privileges.
Parish meetings were held in the vestry. Every parishioner was entitled to attend a meeting and the vote. Eventually, vestries could not hold them and very few parishes retained the custom. Parishes began to select representatives called vestrymen in the larger parishes. In other parishes, the rector held sway. Poor parishioners stayed away. Others were ruled by a squire or a small clique who dominated the meeting.
Parishioners were funded by rate-paying inhabitants. Legislation in 1831 which was permissive enabled a parish with more than 800 rate paying inhabitants to create their statute select vestry and elect vestrymen to manage their affairs. The clergyman and churchwardens were ex-officio members. Accounts must be kept and audited.
Comprehensive Local Government Reform
Through early to mid-19th century numerous boards were established under enabling legislations. This included Highway Boards, Conservancy Boards; Local Boards of Health; Improvement Commissioners; Port Sanitary Authorities; Burial Boards and School Boards. The areas governed by each did not necessarily overlap and a jungle of jurisdictions emerged. Ratepayers sometimes had a confusing number of elections with numerous different rates.
The Local Government Acts 1888 and 1894 created the County Council as the administrative county. It introduced popular representation into the management of the county. The administrative duties of the justices of the peace were removed leaving them with judicial functions only.
In 1894 Act created the Parish Council and District Council. The parish and district levels existed below county level. Most boards and commissioners had their functions transferred to local councillors. By the end of 19th century such bodies were regulating, lodgement houses, workman’s dwellings, food, sky-signs, overhead wires, recreation grounds, education, pauper lunatic asylums, reformatories, industrial schools, pollution, wild flowers, wild birds, fish conservation, music and dancing, race-course, slaughter-houses, weights and measures, explosive etc.
By the end of the century, local government expenditure in England reached £84M. Half of this was met by rates, a quarter by borrowing and a quarter by central funds. Another eighth of income was defrayed from fines, tolls, dues etc.