Prepared by T. J. Howells
The Origins of Parish Councils
It may be surprising to learn that Parish Councils only started to operate in 1894.
It’s important to realise that a Parish Council is the lowest, or first, tier of government and as such is the closest to the people. Before 1894 the affairs of parishes had been administered by a vestry, or meeting, of the village inhabitants. The vestries did not have their powers or composition defined in any law, and there was no rule about who could attend the meetings or who could preside. These vestries were responsible for the general well-being of the village; they looked after the poor, the old and the sick, and maintained the church and the churchyard and managed the village pound. They also nominated from amongst themselves the appropriate officials: overseers of the poor, surveyors of the highways, church wardens, sextons, keepers of the pound and, in many cases, the constables. Up until the late 19th Century to the people of a village the real government was not the cabinet or parliament, but the parish vestry. It mattered more to them who was the overseer of the poor than whether the Duke of Newcastle or the Duke of Grafton was Prime Minister. Inevitably these vestry meetings were dominated by the squire, the parson and the principal ratepayers and some became ‘select vestries’ only open to those people deemed ‘suitable’ to serve. In many parishes, particularly rural ones, the system worked perfectly well, in others it was virtually non-existent or very inefficient.
The Liberal Party came to power towards the end of the 19th century and they began to implement their long-held plans based on the need to reform parish government, thus breathing new life into the moribund parish vestries, and breaking the power of the Church of England over the lives of nonconformists and non-believers. This policy, together with a general movement towards greater ‘democracy’, led to a Bill being promoted in 1892 to create Parish Councils. After a difficult passage through parliament and many amendments, the Bill became an Act in 1894. The Act called Parish Councils into existence wherever in a rural district the population of the parish was 300 or more in 1891 (a Census year). A parish was defined, largely by reference to history and practice, as ‘a place for which a separate poor rate is or can be made, or a separate overseer is or can be appointed’. The effect of the Act was to transfer all non-ecclesiastical functions, including the Burial Board, from the church to the elected Parish Councils. The Act did not abolish the vestries and they survived as ecclesiastical bodies until 1922 when a Parochial Church Council was established in every ecclesiastical parish.
In late 1894 newspapers began to publish details of the Act and to explain who was entitled to vote. The Alnwick and County Gazette ran a long article in their September 22nd edition giving answers to what would now be classed as Frequently Asked Questions. It must be remembered this was at a time when only male house owners were entitled to vote in Parliamentary elections and was nearly 25 years before universal manhood suffrage and the vote for women over thirty. There was much interest therefore in the question ‘Who can vote?’ and perhaps general surprise to discover from the paper that:-
‘To vote you must be a voter in the parish for Parliamentary or County Council elections or else you must have lived in the village, or not more than three miles from it, during the last twelve months. The next thing is to get two other voters to propose you in writing.’
But this was not the greatest surprise because the Act gave the vote not only to single women who were qualified, but also to married women who were qualified (i.e. by occupancy), although a husband and wife could not be qualified in respect of the same property and in practice few married women were qualified. The excitement this widespread enfranchisement generated can be imagined.
To ensure that parishioners were kept informed meetings were arranged and it was reported in the newspaper that:
‘On Tuesday evening the 6th November a meeting of ratepayers of the parish of Embleton was held in the Working Men’s Club Room for the purpose of taking into consideration the Local Government (Parish Councils) Act 1894. There was a good attendance. The vicar (the Rev. M. F. Osborn) took the Chair and opened the proceedings by reading over those portions of the Act which immediately referred to the formation and election of Parish and District Councils, after which he delivered a few observations upon the workings of the Act generally. Important discussions ensued, these being conducted by Messrs Thompson, McLaren, Moore, Atcheson, Appleby and others. Mr Atcheson gave a precise outline of the provisions and powers of the Act, which was much appreciated.’
As might be expected, the enthusiasm for the election of the new councils was widespread throughout the country. In a Flintshire parish there were 90 candidates for 15 seats, in a Devon parish 41 candidates for 15 seats and in a Staffordshire parish 40 for 9 seats.
Embleton Parish Council History
In Embleton the first Parish Meeting was held in the Reading Rooms at 7pm on December 8th. There were 150 persons present. It was resolved on the motion of Mr Thompson, seconded by Dr Waterson, that the Rev. M. F. Osborn be appointed chairman of the Parish Meeting. The Chairman then called for nominations and a show of hands for each candidate. Eighteen persons were then nominated for the seven seats as Parish Councillors:
(Mark Appleby 26 votes cast, William Appleby 15, James Atcheson 15, George Bolton 23, Joseph Carr 21, John Conning 31, Robert Coxon 16, George Douglas 20, James Dickinson 21, George Forster 10, William Hornsby 12, James Moore 15, James McLaren 8, Alexander Pitt 8, John Stephenson 16, James Young Jnr 13, James Young Snr 8, William Wake 17.)
A poll was then demanded by Mr James Moore of Embleton, one of the candidates, and this needs some explanation.
Elections, like decisions at other village meetings, were ordinarily decided by a show of hands and in this case each elector had one vote for each vacant seat. As there were more candidates than vacant seats, then any one elector might demand a poll by secret ballot. These polls cost money and were to be avoided if possible. In one Northumberland parish (not Embleton) the candidates were kept locked up until one of them agreed to withdraw to avoid a poll. Elections by a show of hands led to confusion and errors. Few chairmen could know by sight who was entitled to vote and fewer still could notice in a crowded meeting how many times any one person raised his or her hand. It was difficult enough for electors to remember how many times they had voted when there were say 15 vacancies. It was also a handicap if a candidate’s name began with a letter low in the alphabet and the confusion was compounded by voters trying to indicate their vote to the chairman while avoiding being seen by, say, their employer as failing to vote for him. It is extraordinary that despite these problems it wasn’t until 1948 that the Representation of the People Act abolished this method of election.
Anyway, the candidates from Embleton were not to be denied and in the December 15th edition of the Alnwick and County Gazette it stated:
‘The candidates standing for election to the Embleton Parish Council are:
- Mark Appleby – stone merchant and contractor living at Greys Inn aged 42
- William Appleby - whinstone quarry man aged 37
- James Atcheson – schoolmaster aged 59
- George Bolton – boot maker aged 49
- Joseph Carr – schoolmaster aged 32 living in school house
- John Conning – joiner and cartwright aged 32
- Robert Coxon – farmer aged 30 living at Glebe Farm
- George Douglas – mole catcher aged 36 living at Christon Bank
- James Dickinson – innkeeper and butcher living at Railway Inn aged 35
- George Forster – farmer living at North Farm aged 25
- William Hornsby shepherd aged 29
- James Moore,
- James McLaren – civil engineer aged 30
- Alexander Pitt – baker and grocer living at Mount Pleasant aged 34
- John Stephenson – grocer living at Star Inn aged 25
- James Young Jnr – rabbit merchant aged 30 living at Christon Bank
- James Young Snr – farmer and grocer aged 62 living at Christon Bank
- William Wake – stone sett maker aged 35’
So there were eighteen candidates for seven seats.
In some parishes things turned nasty and at Wroxham, where a working class candidate made an election speech, he found himself sacked and evicted two days later even though he was a steady workman and chapel steward. Working men turned out en-masse to vote for him but it didn’t get him his job or home back. As far as is known nothing untoward happened in Embleton and the elections were held, probably on the 15th December, and the results were published in the paper on the 22nd:
‘The results of the Parish Council election in Embleton were:
- Mark Appleby 51 votes,
- William Wake 45 votes,
- John Stephenson 43 votes,
- James Atcheson 41 votes,
- George Douglas 39 votes,
- James Dickinson 35 votes
- William Hornsby 35 votes.
The remaining candidates were not elected’. The Council thus consisted of a quarry owner, a grocer, a quarry sett maker, a schoolmaster, a mole catcher, an innkeeper and a shepherd.
So the 1894 elections came and went and Councils were formed. Those who expected the working classes to take over were disappointed. In a survey of over 1000 parishes it was found the Councils were made up of 31% farmers or yeomen, 14% agricultural labourers, 7% gentlemen, 4% representatives from the drinks trade and 3% Church of England clergy. The remainder stretched from asylum attendants to well sinkers. As expected, parishes differed widely. In Blaxhall, Suffolk the Council was made up of a blacksmith, four labourers, two farmers and a labourers’ agent, whilst in Arrow, Warwickshire the Parish Council of five included the Marquis of Hertford, his brother Lord Earnest Seymore and a Mr Christie his gardener.
In the choice of Chairmen of Parish Councils there was considerable evidence of traditional deference. In the old vestries the parson had always taken the chair and now many Councils chose the parson as their first chairman, co-opting him for that purpose if he had not been elected to the Council. Others elected the squire or other leading inhabitants (three dukes became chairmen) but at Bolden in Durham a miner was elected in preference to a bishop.
The first meeting of Embleton Parish Council was held in the Reading Room on December 31st 1894 when Mr John Stephenson was appointed as provisional chairman until the election of a chairman of the Parish Council took place. Mr Mark Appleby was proposed by Mr William Wake and seconded by Mr James Dickinson. Mr James Atcheson was proposed by Mr William Hornsby and seconded by Mr G Douglas. On a show of hands being taken Mr Appleby was duly elected chairman of the Council by four votes to three. Mr John Stephenson was unanimously elected vice chairman. Mr Joe Forster, bank agent in Alnwick, Treasurer and Mr J Thompson Clerk to the Council. The following gentlemen were appointed to represent the Embleton Township on the Burial Board; John Craster Esq., Craster Towers, Mr John Stephenson, Embleton and Mr William Wake, Embleton.
And so the Parish Council set to work. There does not appear to be a record of the second Parish Council meeting in Embleton but the third meeting was held on February 26th. Present: Messrs Appleby (Chairman), Hornsby, Douglas, Dickinson, Stephenson and Atcheson with Mr Thompson, Clerk. Minutes of the last meeting were read. The Clerk was instructed to get Lumley’s Public Health Act. It was proposed by Mr Atcheson and seconded by Mr Hornsby and carried unanimously that the Clerk be instructed to write to each of the applicants for allotments to ask them to state specifically in what fields they would like to have their lands, so as to enable the Council to enter into agreement with the landlords for the purpose of procuring the land. It was agreed to let Mr Wake’s motion (for the Council to provide a recreation ground) to stand over until the next meeting as he was not present – notice was given by Mr Atcheson that at the next meeting he would move that the Council provide a public hall for the use of the parish, the said hall to have a room attached so that it can be used for meetings of the Parish Council – proposed by Mr Hornsby and seconded by Mr Douglas that the Trustees of Dunstanburgh Castle Estate be approached to give a site gratuitously for the public hall. The following are applicants for allotments:
Grass Land Tillage Land
- James McLaren 3 acres 1 acre
- George McLaren 10 acres 4 acres
- Thomas Murdy 4 acres 3 acres
- George Bolton (shoemaker) 3 acres 1 acre
James Moor has applied for an allotment not stating what size he requires.
The fourth meeting of Embleton Parish Council, and the last to be reported on at present, was held on March 26th. Present: Messrs Appleby, Stephenson, Wake, Dickinson and Atcheson, with Mr Thompson, Clerk. Mr Wake proposed that the Council provide a recreation ground for the use of the parish seconded by Mr Dickinson. On a vote Messrs Appleby, Wake, Stephenson and Dickinson were for, and Messrs Atcheson and Douglas against. It was proposed by Mr Stephenson and seconded by Mr Wake that a committee ‘consisting of the four members who voted for the motion’ be formed to approach various landlords adjoining the village to provide a suitable ground at as reasonable a charge as possible. Mr Wake gave notice that he would propose at the next meeting that the Council approach the Dunstanburgh Castle Estate to set aside some land for allotments. It was agreed unanimously to allow the Clerk £2 for his services, including expenses, up to April 15th 1895.
Throughout the country Parish Councils were gradually finding their feet and setting to work to address local concerns. By 1908 nearly a quarter of councils had acquired allotments, about 1000 had adopted lighting powers, 700 had new burial grounds and 500 fire-fighting equipment. Much of the expenditure went on street lighting and burial grounds. Many Councils bought land for recreation grounds and playing fields, but only the largest could afford libraries, wash houses and baths.
The first Councils sat for 16 months and the 1896 elections, lacking the excitement of novelty, suffered from a marked feeling of apathy displayed by villagers.
What of women councillors? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Huxley and Florence Nightingale were amongst those in the 1890s who urged the participation of women in parish government and the cause was advanced by the Women’s Local Government Society, an upper middle class, Liberal feminist organisation founded in1886. An article in the Parish Councils’ journal in 1896 entitled ‘Why women are needed as Parish Councillors’ expressed the view that ‘a capable woman, who manages her home well and economically, is just as able to help in the government of her village as her husband and quite as much needed’. The Women’s Co-operative guild reminded its members that they had a particular interest in Parish Council concerns – a proper water supply and sanitation, refuse disposal, and fencing of ponds dangerous to children. It would be wrong to give the impression that women were strongly represented on Parish Councils. It is reckoned that only 80 were returned at the first election (out of a total of some 57,000 councillors) although it might have been as high as 200. One council in Sheffield elected a woman to the chair. By 1935 women constituted only 3% of Parish Council members and a Dorset woman suggested that her likes were unpopular because they raised matters which protracted meetings until after closing time and the method of election by show of hands told against them. In the post war years the National Federation of Women’s Institutes did much to encourage women to serve on Parish Councils and by 1966 13% of Parish Councillors were women. The percentage continued to increase and by 1991 the proportion of female councillors had more than doubled to 27%. Despite this increase the typical councillor remained a middle aged man.
Interest in the Parish Council never reached anything like the 1894 levels again and to illustrate this, the Alnwick & County Gazette in March 1899 reported that:-
‘The Annual Parish meeting for the election of Embleton Parish Councillors for the ensuing year was held in the Parish schoolroom on Saturday evening last week. There were only fourteen persons present including the seven old members of the Council, but there was not one member of the respectable class of citizens of the parish present, neither lay nor clerical – Mr John Johnson, mason, was unanimously voted to the Chair. The number of Councillors required was seven. Only seven nomination papers were sent in, most of them being signed by Messrs J. Penny and R. Lillie, quarry employees, and found all correct. As these consisted of the names of the whole of the old members and no other nominations were forthcoming, the Chairman formally declared the whole of the old members again duly elected for another year. Questions having been invited, Mr Robert Sanderson asked the old Councillors to give an account of the amount of work done by them during the past year, which they refused to do, one of the old members simply saying that they had made a new footpath in lieu of the old one taken away by the working of the quarry. He next asked them if they intended to take the necessary steps for improving the water supply at the Blue Row but was ruled out of order and was informed that he must submit his question in writing and not verbally.’
Between 1894 and 1972, when the present basic Local Government Act came into being, there were many difficulties encountered and, despite the impression given by the Vicar of Dibley series, much has changed. The statutory function of Parish Councils is almost exclusively powers, not duties. The only remaining obligation is to provide allotment gardens if demand is unsatisfied. Parish Councils are now closely regulated and the amount of administrational bureaucracy and red tape has increased exponentially.
There are currently more than 8500 Parish Councils in England but not every civil parish has a Parish Council – smaller ones (typically with an electorate under 200) may share a Council with one or more neighbouring parishes, such an arrangement being known as a joint, grouped, common or combined Parish Council.