Reprinted from Newsletter 115, dated 2005 May

Why a mayor for Glastonbury, out of step with other towns?

Robert Dunning

A middle-aged, clean-shaven white man with grey hair combed to the side looks at the camera. He wears a white shirt, a colourful tie, and a dark jacket.
A woman in red and white upper-class early-modern-period dress sits on an opulent throne. Two men stand beside her in navy and gold robes, holding staffs.

Queen Anne on the Town Hall stage was played by Muriel Mudie. Flanking her are the town’s macebearers, Michael King and Victor Jones.

It is a great honour, if only a fleeting one, to have shared this stage with the monarch in whose name Glastonbury came to be a corporate town. She has, I fear, yet another attack of gout coming on, a malady which never improved her temper.

The royal cipher AR, Anna Regina, Anne the Queen, the royal arms of Stuart, and the date 1705 all on the town’s precious silver-gilt maces are reminders that by the charter granted in her name in that year a group of worthy townsmen were empowered to govern their community. The maces are symbols of authority, and were brought to all meetings of the corporation as well as to court sessions; and of course to State occasions when the constables appeared resplendent in expensive caped coats and cocked hats. They have been silent witnesses to unholy rows and political bargaining, you may be sure; what a pity it is we cannot be certain who made them: the names of Nathaniel Lock and Seth Lofthouse have both been quoted with equal authority.

Now I am sure, in this significant Glastonbury anniversary year, that no one here suspects that any future local government reorganization scheme (and there will be one, you can be sure) will deprive this and other towns of any further significant evidences of their heritage, but how without such a provocative title as I have chosen would you have been induced to attend a stuffy lecture on the history of the corporation?

Why was Glastonbury so late?

But my question really is: Why in the year of grace 1705 was Glastonbury not already a corporate town, governed by all the paraphernalia of mayor, aldermen and burgesses?

Wells, after all, had been recognised as a borough by Bishop Robert of Lewes at some time before 1166, and Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury two centuries later had bowed to local pressure and accepted the master of the community, later to be the mayor, to speak for and gradually to rule his fellow citizens.

Bridgwater men after 1200 also gained power within their borough bit by bit, and leading burgesses of both found themselves from the early 14th century regularly sending representatives to Parliament, a privilege which brought with it the obligation, as privileges usually do, to pay them an allownace of 4d a day for so long as they were away from home. The man prepared to waive that fee might well be chosen by electors who put pocket before politics.

But still neither Wells nor Bridgwater had a mayor, and Bridgwater won the race between the two by a mile when it persuaded the lord of part of the borough, who also happened to be King Edward IV, to issue a charter in 1468 incorporating the borough, providing it with a governing body of a mayor, two bailiffs, and an unspecified number of burgesses. They thought, deluded fools, that such a governing body was a guarantee of economic success. Wells had to wait for a similar charter until 1589, Bath until 1590. But why did not the men of Glastonbury (the women, of course, had no say in the matter) agitate for such independence?

The Abbot still reigned

The answer almost certainly was that before the Dissolution the Abbot of Glastonbury would not have countenanced such an idea. And yet in March 1319 the sheriff of Somerset and Dorset reported to the royal Chancery that he had sent a writ to William de Grymstede, bailiff of the Liberty of Glastonbury, requiring him to arrange for two men to be sent to a Parliament summoned to meet at York in May; and in the summer of the same year William Pacy, Adam the tiler, William Farrier, William Bowyer, Adam Harding and William le Hert, describing themselves boldly as burgesses of Glastonbury, wrote to the bailiffs of Bridport to declare that Richard le Leghe, whoever he was, was an honest man.

True, the bailiff of the Liberty of Glastonbury was an Abbey official; and true, he took no notice whatever of the summons and Glastonbury never did send men to Parliament; but both the king’s officials and the men of Bridport thought Glastonbury had some kind of existence independent of the abbey.

And there is a bit more evidence pointing the same way, for men of the town had been responsible for the corporate property of St John’s at least since 1303. The magnificent collection of deeds belonging to the church demonstrates how the churchwardens efficiently administered their growing estate in the town until the end of the Middle Ages. How long before 1303 they had this responsibility we shall never know, but by 1320 the wardens and parish together had a corporate seal to add legal authenticity to their leases.

It took another century

It seems to have taken a century and more to progress further.

But there survives a deed of March 1424 by which Thomas Dunster and Mathew Stokwode, the wardens, granted to William Lacy and his wife Alice the reversion of an empty site on the west side of the graveyard between the house of Thomas Porter on the south and the road through the graveyard to the church on the north, measuring 33 feet by 50 feet, the grant to take effect on the death of the current tenant, Clementine, widow of John Aldenham. As normal there were two documents, the lease and its counterpart, one for the new tenants, one for the wardens’ archives.

What makes this deed special is that one part bore the seal of the wardens, the other what was described as the common seal of the vill of Glastonbury. That same seal was later to be known as the seal of the community and references to it occur throughout the 15th century. No impressions of the seal have survived, so we shall never know what symbol the burgesses chose as their own. I think I can guarantee it was not King Arthur — he was abbey property.

Norbins and Archers Way

But there is more. On the Tuesday after Michaelmas 1448 Abbot Nicholas Frome, never one to give anything away, granted to the burgesses and community of the vill that under certain conditions they could hold a piece of land in North field measuring 3½ acres, bounded on one side by Northbynn, for a rent of 3/– payable by the churchwardens of St John’s — a clear indication that the community the abbot recognised had been born from the long corporate history of the parish church.

The conditions were that the community should enclose the land with ditches, quickthorns and trees so that the men of the vill could demostrate their keenness in shooting with bows, arrows and bolts rather more safely than in the past. The origins of Archers Way may thus be ascribed to an early outbreak of Health and Safety activity, though it is equally possible that the uncertainty of the times — the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses was not far away — might have led the abbot to prepare his own private bunch of sharpshooters — which would, I suppose, be an early example of modern government’s strategic partnership.

Democracy was not yet invented

But that is as far as town independence went — a community seal, but no powers of self-government of any kind.

Instead in the centre of town in the early 16th century were clear evidences of the abbey’s firm and propbably efficient exercise of neighbourhood watch and community protection. There was Abbot Bere’s newly built hall where the sheriff of the county came twice a year but which was used much more often by the abbot’s own officers for the local manor courts or halmoots, for the portmoots where market disputes were heard and weights and measures checked, where the piepowder courts were held to settle disputes at fair time. Under the hall was the gaol and not far away was the Tolcester, the booth where checks were made on brewers and ale sellers.

And that was all — nothing in the way of what President Bush would call “Liberty” and “Democracy”.

Dissolution made it worse

And the dissolution of the monastery in 1539 offered no hope whatever, for just as the abbey buildings were regarded as a convenient stone quarry, so the abbey lands were seized upon first by the Crown and then by Crown lessees who divided and sub-let to the confusion of everybody.

Within a century the manor, whatever that was, was divided into seven parts, the grasslands parcelled out to the huge annoyance of local farmers who had for centuries claimed common rights. Inevitably the sales of leases forced prices much higher than locals could afford and in 1613 the manor was said to be “intolerably defaced and impoverished”, first by the sale of the home farm and second by granting so many leases to foreigners, resulting in the neglect of houses within the town.

With all these anxieties no one gave a thought to local government, though Sir John Sydenham of Brympton promoted a bill in Queen Mary’s first Parliament in 1554 to make Glastonbury Somerset’s county town. This was a challenge to the established county town, Ilchester, which it met by acquiring from the Crown a charter of incorporation to revive old rights and liberties, giving it a bailiff and 12 capital burgesses with power to make “statutes and ordinances for the governance of the borough” and to lay down “pains and penalties for the observance of the same”. That charter kept Ilchester going as the county town for another 300 or so years.

Sydenham’s suggestion came to nothing; there were those who saw a large element of personal vested interest in his idea which no amount of spin could conceal — for he himself had been involved in supporting Thomas Cromwell in the murky business of the closure of the abbey and had also been partly responsible for driving out the Flemish cloth-workers who had set up the beginnings of a business park among the ruins of the monastery.

A century later, still struggle

Glastonbury was still struggling at the end of the 17th century, a time of political upheaval and religious intolerance if ever there was one. The remarkable number of 175 houses in the town were so small as to be exempted from paying hearth tax.

When the Duke of Monmouth and his followers came here in July 1685 they must have been relieved that there was no awkward mayor to deal with as they had found at Taunton, thanks to the political manipulations of the government. Corporations, you see, were in a position to ensure the right sort of people were successful at general elections, for they were usually the controlling electors in one way or another, and the government at the time was not happy with liberal-minded and often Nonconformist Whigs who were suspicious of anything Anglican and Tory and implacably hostile to anything smacking of Roman Catholicism.

So the idea that Taunton’s corporation should be revived was not countenanced until 1677, when it was made clear that only those willing to swear the Anglican oaths of allegiance and supremacy could be members, and the king insisted that he should personally approve the recorder and town clerk. Further, six county justices, Anglican and Tory to a man, were made members, thus guaranteeing loyalty as the government defined it. It was thus not surprising that Taunton’s mayor had to be persuaded at the point of a sword to appear in public with the Duke of Monmouth in 1685.

It was a similar story at Bridgwater, for in 1683 “by surprise and in a surreptitious and clandestine manner’ the not-very-Tory corporation were somehow hoodwinked into surrendering their charter. Their new one cunningly limited the parliamentary franchise to the common council and removed the recorder, an alderman, and ten burgesses whose support for government policy could not be guaranteed. Surprise, surprise, the election in May 1685 produced two Tory MPs. But as if hedging their bets, a month later the Tory mayor and corporation formally proclaimed Monmouth king. Their rather subtle punishment was to care for the royal wounded for the next two years without any kind of government subsidy.

Whigs and Nonconformists

Glastonbury at the time, so far as it is possible to see, had its full share of Nonconformists and Whigs, though how far it supported Monmouth cannot be known. It was the home in 1669 of nine clergymen ejected from the Anglican fold, one of whom had a following of 300 using a converted barn. Later in the century smaller, and often poorer, groups set up meeting houses throughout the town. Quakers were probably strongest at the beginning of the 18th century with a meeting house on the south side of Benedict Street.

Why did the town want a charter?

But why, after years of unpleasant political turmoil, should the people of Glastonbury want a charter with all its potential trouble and expense? Why have a mayor? Was not the town well-enough governed by those who in one way or another had been performing public duties for centuries and who would continue for some time to come?

A town jury, which sounds suspiciously democratic, had probably chosen two constables each year in succession to the medieval hundred constables, to deal with law and order; five parish overseers had dealt with poor relief from the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign; by 1580, and probably from the early 14th century when the conduit called Fabiansput was named, the parish organised the three conduit wardens and their plumber assistant, helping them raise funds with an annual beer festival known as the Shrovetide ale; and until the 1870s the parish was also responsible for highways. So what was there for a mayor and corporation to do?

The point, as the petitioners of 1703 made clear, was a question of law and order. The parish constables might be all right for neighbourhood watch, but serious justice and peacekeeping was inconveniently and inefficiently remote. It was in the hands of the county justices of the peace who lived on their country estates and had their own local interests — “much occupied elsewhere” was the phrase the petitioners used. Anyone involved in the “complaints, suits and controversies” which cropped up in any town would have to travel some miles and could not be certain that the Justice would be at home; and the result, the petitioners declared rather ungrammatically, was that “the morall of the inhabitants are corrupt, and cavill and breach of the peace very frequent”.

And the petitioners went for broke. Would the government through its law officers issue letters patent for a mayor, recorder, aldermen and so many capital burgesses to the number of 24 as several other of His Majesty’s good towns in the county enjoyed? The answer, after two years of waiting, was not quite so impressive: a mayor, seven capital burgesses, and sixteen inferior burgesses, all named in the charter, together with a recorder to preside over courts who might operate by deputy, and a town clerk to keep records in some kind of orderly and legal fashion.

The prime mover was Peter King

A man with wavy brown hair stands smiling at the camera. He is wearing a grey suit with a white shirt and a chequered silver tie. He wears a gold chain around his neck. His left hand is in his pocket. Behind him is a gold-framed painting of a man in old-fashioned clothing including a voluminous red-and-white-striped layer covering much of his torso and legs, and what appears to be a light-blue scarf. His hair is long, wavy and brown.

The portrait of Peter King in the council chamber still presides over the business of the town. In the foreground is Tom Billing, the 300th mayor.

If any single individual was responsible for Glastonbury’s charter, that man was Peter King, named in the charter as the first of the capital burgesses and also as recorder. He still appears to preside over the business of the town, for his portrait hangs in the council chamber and successive mayors sit beneath his gaze.

How he came to be involved is something of a mystery. He was, to be sure, one of the leading lawyers on the Western Circuit and was regarded by the great John Locke, his famous uncle, as the son he never had. But King was a native of Exeter, brought up a Presbyterian, and Whig MP for the rather corrupt Devon constituency of Bere Alston, a seat he shared with another Whig lawyer William Cowper.

It is just possible that Glastonbury’s charter was the first step towards the creation of another Parliamentary borough, two more potential votes for the government of the day. Why, otherwise, should this London-based lawyer be interested in a Somerset borough? There is also another clue, for another of the first capital burgesses was Robert King the elder, and among the other burgesses was Robert King the younger. Were they, I wonder, related in some way to the King family of Exeter, in the same way as Timothy Rood, another of the first burgesses, was certainly related to John Rood of Exeter who had land in the Glastonbury at the time?

Peter King was what was described as a Country Whig who, wisely following the advice of his mentor Locke, had on the whole taken an independent line in politics and was known rather as the most religious man of his age who attended divine service three times on a Sunday and often took over prayers from his chaplain. His strong moral principles were well known, he had published an influential book on the history of the Apostles Creed, and he was a founder member of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

A depiction of a crest. A red Byzantine cross outlined in black is at each of the left, top, and right edges. In the centre is a blue shield, decorated with a gold and red mitre, behind which are two crossed gold crosiers. Two ribbons stream from the bottom of the mitre. Below the shield is a banner reading “floreat ecclesia anglicana”.

Did Peter King write the motto for Glastonbury’s town crest?

I am very tempted on all these grounds to suggest that the town’s rather flamboyant motto Floreat Ecclesia Anglicana, suggesting in some way that Glastonbury might stand as a beacon for the survival of the Church of England against her political enemies, might be down to Peter King.

But King the lawyer stood for moral principle, and he risked his political future in proposing a bill which sought to remove all government officers whose posts had been created after the death of Charles II nearly twenty years before; a massive attack, in other words, on Whig quangos. He personally took the bill to the House of Lords where it was massacred. About the same time he upset the Tory-dominated House of Commons by maintaining that a voter prevented from exercising his franchise at a Parliamentary election should have recourse to the common law. For such even-handed behaviour he found himself courted by the new Tory administration of Lord Treasurer Godolphin and Lord Keeper Cowper, his fellow MP for Bere Alston. Was the Recordership of Glastonbury some kind of personal reward?

In the event he soon became recorder of London, a far more influential post, and was replaced as recorder of Glastonbury, and then only for a year, by the pompous-sounding Fortescue Turberville. And a year after him came Edward Phelips of Montacute, whose family had only recently lost their interest in Langport borough. So still, in spite of the hopes of the petitioners for the charter, the leading lawyer of the new corporation had to be sought several miles away at his country seat. Only in the 1730s did the town have a really local recorder in the person of Davidge Gould of Sharpham.

But still, the mayor for the time being was a justice of the peace, and the immediate past mayor served as the recorder’s deputy and was called the justice. The mayor’s was an office of much influence for he could veto any proposed new member of the corporation and he presided in the usual absence of the recorder at the fortnightly petty sessions and the quarterly general sessions to ensure that the “morall” of the inhabitants were no longer corrupt and breach of the peace infrequent.

Not much is known about other early mayors

It is to be hoped that the first mayor and burgesses were such as the petitioners for the charter had in mind, but I fear I have been unable to find very much about them.

John Aplin, gentleman, the first mayor, may well have been the stockingmaker in business in the town twenty years earlier and was probably related to the Aplins of Shepton Mallet who were in the same business. By 1704 he was only taxed on land in the parish since the very acceptable law at the time allowed the taxpayer to pay on goods or land, and who in his right mind would admit to valuable stock-in-trade rather than a modest farm?

Among the first capital burgesses, Robert King the elder had been warden of St John’s in 1696, was justice in 1707 and died in 1709; William Vincent probably lived in St Benedict’s and paid more tax on his land than John Aplin; Fitz Wrentmore, whose grandfather had been lessee of the Crown inn about 1640, was married at St Benedict’s in 1686, had stock-in-trade worth £100 in 1704 and at the first formal election held under the charter on 1 September 1707 was apparently at the end of his mayoralty. Thomas Mores, rather more farmer than tradesman, was his successor and continued as a leading townsman at least until 1720 when he both signed and confirmed the parish rate.

Of the original sixteen inferior burgesses Henry Bytham had been warden of St John’s in 1703 and having graduated to the dizzy heights of capital burgess was described in the parish register at his burial in February 1728 as alderman, a title of course never mentioned in the charter. Robert King the younger, mayor in 1712 and 1716, had land worth £43 a year and died in 1720; Thomas Prew and Sylvanus Penny were each in a small way of business, Samuel Downton was a soap boiler or tallow chandler, John Wherrett a soap boiler, Thomas Bartlett possibly a hatter. Most of the other inferior burgesses paid land tax in the parish in 1704 though one or two names are not found at Glastonbury in the rather poor records of the period. On the whole, though, the hopes of the original charter petitioners for government by local people were generally fulfilled.

Earliest records

About 1870 Mr S. Holman, the town clerk of Glastonbury, told Mr H. T. Riley of the Historical Manuscripts Commission that the earliest records of the corporation were “one or two Registers of the Proceedings of the Council in the reign of George I’. Would that were true today, but thanks to the antiquary Thomas Serel of Wells we have some notes which record what he thought of interest.

It is not, I must warn you, a record of deeds carried out for the benefit of the people of Glastonbury but rather of the proceedings of the members of an exclusive gentleman’s club, for the corporation was a self-electing oligarchy with no popular mandate and no incentive to help anybody but themselves. They may all have been respectable, godfearing wardens of St John’s in their turn, concerned for the poor and less fortunate members of their community, but as members of a corporation they were navel-gazers, in practice without power to do very much since they had no corporate property, not even a town hall (they met for many years in a building called either the guildhall or the church house) and therefore no corporate income.

Towards the end of the 18th century they do seem to have shown some spark of conscience in doing what they could to support the parish officers, but apart from peacekeeping they had no public function. So, like members of any such body, they often had nothing better to do that fall out among themselves or were overcome with lethargy and allowed the energetic among them to run the show.

Little in the notes

Using Mr Serel’s notes, and not realizing that that is what they are, one might be forgiven for thinking that in some years there was no mayor at all. It was not a task to be undertaken lightly and when Francis Blake was prepared to take office nine times between 1727 and his death in 1768 one can assume that the rest of the corporation were content. The same contentment I assume allowed them to appoint three members of the Gould family of Sharpham in succession as recorder or deputy and they served between 1735 and 1794.

The town clerks, on whose shoulders rested the task of recording the corporation’s business, should have been significant figures, but the loss of those early records means that even their names are not completely known. Yet in 1765 John Strode was prepared to resign as an inferior burgess in order to apply for the vacant job of town clerk in the place of Thomas Prat. It was a post John Strode thought worth holding.

And there are several other items in Mr Serel’s notes worth mentioning: one, under the year 1766, when a treasurer of the corporation was mentioned and when the business of the town’s conduit wardens was discussed; and the other, presumably with their law-and-order function, was a list of the town’s inns — the New Inn, the Red Lion, the Crown, the George, the Cock, the White Hart, the Bell, the Shoulder of Mutton, the Tor Hill, the King’s Head, the Shoemakers’ Arms, the Three Horseshoes, the Queen’s Head, the Anchor, Splats, the White Cap, and the Colliflower. What the corporation proposed to do with this list is not made clear.

A decade of asserting — or overreaching — themselves

But ten years later they seem to have been prepared to throw their weight around. They resolved in 1777 to enforce the payment of the parish rate to repair the conduit and its pipes, though they had no legal authority to do so. In 1781–2 they resolved to renew the lease of the late James Davis’s house in High Street called the Corporation House, though unless they were subletting I strongly suspect it was not theirs to dispose of.

And in 1785 the town clerk had the nerve to record as if it were corporation business the proceedings of a meeting at the George to appoint waywardens, quite evidently the business of the parishes. Perhaps the last was a mistake, for Daniel Follett Scadding was new to the job as town clerk and did not last for long: he was dismissed “for divers negligences made” and was replaced by John Conway of Wells, gentleman, in August 1786.

Better records begin in 1786

Now the earliest original records of the corporation begin in 1786 and at the beginning of the first volume is a list headed “Members of the Corporation of Glaston”. It begins with John Bond, mayor in 1797, and nine names are crossed through with the word “excluded” in the margin against that of Thomas Barnard and “ditto” against most of the others. Beside the rest are the letters G and U or V, and a few crosses. What this is all about I haven’t a clue, but the rest of the book records the often infrequent and badly-attended meetings of the corporation usually held in a room or building called the Town Hall.

Most of the business is about membership of this exclusive club, not about the public good.

There was a large turnout in June 1794 when Henry Bosanquet of Langford Court was elected recorder in place of Sir Henry Gould of Sharpham who had recently died, but no-one attended the meeting in April 1801. There was similarly a full meeting in October 1813 when John Conway, the town clerk and a resident of Wells, resigned after 27 years and was replaced, according to the minutes, by Richard Periam Prat of Glastonbury as the corporation had decided they needed a resident clerk.

An amplification of that minute rescued by Mr Serel revealed that the mayor, Charles Brown, had wanted a friend in the post, no doubt to cover his back, and wrote to Conway threatening his removal. At the meeting to consider the appointment, Brown could muster only six votes for his friend Mr Reeves, while Prat, proposed by an unnamed capital burgess, received twice as many. The mayor thereupon made off with the only official record of the vote and refused to summon a meeting to discuss the matter.

Chasm between the two kinds of burgesses

There was, of course, a great gulf fixed between capital and inferior burgesses, a fact that was made abundantly clear in the council minutes: the capital burgesses were recorded as “esquires”, the inferior as “misters”.

Much more research would reveal something about the social and economic background of the corporation at the end of the 18th century, but I suspect I am not far wrong in assuming that they were mostly landowners, attorneys and surgeons, with just a few of the most prosperous businessmen calling themselves mercers. It is no surprise that three of the four directors of that brilliant enterprise the Glastonbury Coal Company, John Roach, John Jeanes Roach and Charles Brown, should have been members of the corporation. The fourth, and evidently leader of the business, was William Moxham, a retired Bristol distiller.

The stockingmakers who had led Glastonbury’s economic boom for thirty years were certainly not among the town’s recognised governors, though one of them, John Payne, was elected a constable in 1795 and a currier, John Russ, was an inspector of hides — inferior officers, who had to be kept in their place.

Fines as a money-raiser

Finance, as I implied earlier, was a continuing problem, for the charter gave the the mayor and burgesses no property to enable them to keep up appearances. In the face of poor attendances and reluctance of some people to hold office, fines for refusal to serve was a surefire source of cash.

In October 1807 Mr John Bath preferred to remain an inferior burgess and paid a fine of £10 to the Treasurer to avoid promotion, and John Jeanes Roach as Treasurer paid himself the same sum not to be mayor.

It was all, of course, good for corporation funds. In 1811, 17 members were fined a total of £1 2s 6d for being absent from a meeting. When funds were particularly low it was agreed that anyone who refused to serve as mayor must pay a fine of £20 — a splendid sum to add to the 10 guineas the silkthrowster John Dutch paid for his lease of the town hall, £5 of which it was agreed to go towards the expenses of the feast annually kept on the election of each mayor. We are getting near the truth of the matter now.

And when cash was desperately needed, as when the maces needed re-gilding in 1797, John Bond the mayor put up £5 and the rest was found by the other members.

Conscience stirs at last

By the 1780s, I am immensely glad to tell you, the corporation began to have something of a public conscience, partly, I am sure, because the same people were in any case involved in the public work of the two parishes.

So the names of the conduit wardens began to be recorded at meetings of the corporation. And in 1791 they went further, acting almost as if they were lords of the manor: they nominated two constables and also a tithingman for Edgarley, two goutwardens to look after the drains, two portreeves, two shamblewardens and two searchers and sealers of leather, thus claiming the health-and-safety and public-protection portfolios.

A year or two later and they nominated a tithingman for Norwood Park and a high constable for the eastern part of Glastonbury Twelve Hides. All quite without legal authority, but you know what politicians are.

As much concealed as revealed

Those two minute books of the corporation on which I have been relying so heavily conceal more than they reveal of the public work of the mayor of Glastonbury.

But they tell us what the town clerk thought should be recorded: that, for instance, two inspectors of raw hides and skins appointed in 1809 should examine what was brought into John Symon’s tanyard at Northover, and that ten special constables were needed in the same year, probably to deal with political demonstrations rather than overspill trouble from Pilton.

They also state that 6d was paid in 1811 for red tape to tie up the several acts of Parliament which were making the town clerk’s office look untidy; that in the same year Mr Underwood and his son were “frequently prevented” from going to Notleys’ or Blake’s well, the origins of the town’s water supply; that in 1814 the walls of the horse pound were out of repair and that Hanover Square, in the quaint phrase of the time, was “annoyed by a dungheap”.

The big issue: the new town hall

A very old drawing of three faces of a building, laid out side by side as if unfolded. Grey and red are used for stone and brick, and green for the roof material. On the ground floor many arched entrances are visible, plus some rectangular doors. On the upper level are many windows. The roof looks to be very tall.

The old market hall, which stood in the middle of Magdalene Street, as sketched about 1735 by John Cannon.

What really mattered over these years was the building which used to stand in the street almost opposite where we are now, a two-storied edifice which had served as a market house on the ground floor and as town hall above.

The corporation first talked about removing it early in February 1811 and soon learned that Mr Dutch the tenant was proposing to remove and sell the windows which filled its ground-floor arches, presumably to encourage the use of the ground floor as a farmers’ market. Instead he agreed to quit the property and leave the windows, which the mayor then had removed.

Then the corporation had second thoughts and decided to ask counsel whether they had power to pull the building down, sell the materials and pocket the proceeds. Counsel evidently pointed out to them that it was not their property at all but belonged to a Mr Reeves, a local attorney, which was a bit of a blow. They would have to spend £150 to buy him out and give him the materials into the bargain to get their own way, justifying their proposed expenditure by declaring that the building was a public nuisance.

Now enter the Down family, owners of land formerly within the abbey precinct. John Down the elder, who just happened to be mayor at the time, offered his fellow burgesses a plot 61 feet by 31 feet between the Red Lion and a gateway belonging to his son for the sum of £100. I suspect the district auditor was not consulted. Well, that put the corporation in a dither. After six months of doing nothing they agreed to build a town hall on the old site using some of the walls of the condemned building unless within a fortnight the required sum of £100 could be “rose” (so the town clerk wrote) by subscription for the new site.

Within four months they were meeting in the old building to consult about a new market house and prison with a town hall above it, presumably on the new site; and a note was added to the minute to the effect that the new mayor and John Down had already agreed a contract for the sale. Still there was little progress, though early in 1813 Mr Beard of Somerton was approached to provide plans.

Naturally, more happened than is recorded in the minutes. When someone looked more closely into the finances of the old market house it was discovered that the owner of some land in the moors was charged to keep its roof in repair. £200 cash down released him from that burden, but £150 went on pulling down a house where the new town hall was to be built. The hoped-for subscription for £100 actually raised £226.

By May 1814 the old market house had been demolished but its site was being used by fly-tippers. Eventually the space it had occupied for so long was conveyed to the Turnpike Trustees and was added to the street.

But how to pay for the new Market House, which may or may not by then have been started, and which eventually cost about £1,250? Something like £300 was needed in May 1814, and the corporation decided to raise a mortgage on themselves: each capital burgess was to pay £2 every Michaelmas and each inferior burgess £1. A meeting summoned at what was called the town hall in December of the same year adjourned to the White Hart to discuss raising a further £100. The adjournment, I am sure, was because the building was nothing like ready.

Not until the summer of 1816 was any progress possible, when Thomas Roach lent £300 for what was called the new town hall. It was, I believe, finished by July of the following year, when Richard Smart was summoned there to “shew cause why he should not be expelled as an inferior burgess …for contemptuous behaviour … and other misdemeanours”.

Stirrings of reform afoot

You will agree, I am sure, that this was no way to run a growing town. But it is a story which can be repeated throughout the country: an unrepresentative body of men carrying on in a bumbling if not actually corrupt way with nothing very important to do.

But times had changed. The country whigs who had secured the charter back in 1705 had been changed out of all recognition into the reformed whigs who had forced the great reform bill through Parliament and since 1832 had dominated the House of Commons. Municipal Corporations were now in their sights and commissioners of enquiry began to ask awkward questions.

It was difficult, they were told at Glastonbury and in many other places, to make a proper selection of inferior burgesses though none in finding a sufficient number of candidates — a very significant finding: people wanted to join but were found not suitable by those already members.

It did not look good when it had to be admitted that there was no regular treasurer, that the town clerk had no salary, that the quarter-sessions court had been virtually abandoned for want of customers, that the Grand Jury consisting only of members of the corporation had therefore nothing to do, but still attended, took the oath, and were immediately dismissed; that members of the corporation were still personally paying off the town hall debt.

True under an Act of Parliament of 1811 the mayor, recorder, justice and capital burgesses acted as commissioners empowered to raise a rate for paving and improving the town and another for watching and lighting. Under that Act some large sewers were maintained and when in February 1835 “disturbances and depredations … took place in the town” a beadle was appointed whose principal task was to look at the state of the beer houses.

What did the government do?

The government’s answer to the main problem of unrepresentative, self-perpetuating corporations was either to abolish them or to reduce their membership in Glastonbury’s case to four aldermen and 12 councillors, one of them to be mayor, and to elect each alderman for six years and each councillor for three. Business was to be conducted through watch and market committees, finance through an independent treasurer and auditors.

Over the next century and a half that corporation widened its interests for the public good as national law required and as a succession of distinguished aldermen and councillors led. That is another and fascinating story.

And the 20th-century reform…

Another government, claiming like the 1832 whigs to be reforming, decided, as governments are wont to do to, on change, and legislation which came into force on All Fool’s Day 1974 stripped our corporation of its historic status. I hesitate to say that it has returned to its ancient role, for it is still an elected body, representing the people of the town as it never did before 1835; but the maintenance and improvement of this town hall is a continuing concern.

The good of the town is the purpose of the town council and its members, in so many ways far beyond the imaginings of their municipal ancestors three hundred years ago. That we are celebrating the charter at all is a salute to those ancestors; and in such numbers tonight is a mark of our appreciation of our distinguished heritage.

And we have a mayor of Glastonbury, of course, to control the morals of the people and to keep the peace.

Robert Dunning

Musgrove Manor East
Barton Close, Taunton, TA1 4RU