Local Government in Hampshire, 1066-1976

Local Government in Hampshire, 1066-1976

It seems necessary first to define local government, for in 1976 many matters which appear to be truly local are in fact the concern of central government, and not the responsibility of local authorities elected by the local electorate.

Local government is government of a particular geographical area by an individual or group of individuals, whose authority is derived from central government. The strength of Norman administration in Hampshire depended basically on the efficiency of the Sheriff, the king’s local representative in the county, but the county had had at least one Anglo-Saxon Sheriff, Ezi, who owned land at Tatchbury in the parish of Eling, and a small estate in Barton Stacey which even­tually passed to his Norman successor, Hugh de Port. Ezi’s main duty must have been to preside over the shire court where the principal suitors were Hampshire thegns, and the main business the ownership of land. Below the shire court, the administrative unit of law and order was the Hundred, which remained a nominal division of the county until the present century. The names of the Hampshire Hundreds are not always easy to explain, but the division itself is very ancient and goes back at least to the time of King Edgar. His ordinance of the Hundred required the Hundred courts to meet every four weeks and justice to be done to all. Each Hundred was further divided into Tythings, perhaps in origin a group of 10 families, and the tything man was responsible for the arrest of criminals in his area. When Anglo-Saxon kings were in Hampshire and assembled the Witenagemot to advise them, influential local men were summoned to attend; but local government in Hampshire before 1066 showed little sign of democracy, though there were ancient assemblies, usually held out of doors, on a natural hill, beneath a well-known tree, or in pagan times at the burial places of a well-known chieftain. After the conversion the great preaching crosses were obvious assembly points, and it is tempting to suggest that solution as the explanation of the widening of Winchester’s High Street at the High Cross. Southampton met at Cuttmorn, and in the New Forest the Moot House at Downton provides another example, in its garden, of a site which must have seen some important meetings.

Map 13 Hamshire re-organised
Map 13 Hamshire re-organised

The Normans imposed their own forms of bureaucracy on the Anglo-Saxon structure which they found, and the Sheriffs became very powerful indeed. They received the royal commands in the form Of writs, receipts which directed that certain actions be taken, and if necessary used their armed forces or posse to enforce that action. They made the arrangements in Winchester for holding the Assize, the sittings of the King’s Justices on circuit; and the Sheriff was always a member of the Assize Commission, which inevitably included a number of local magnates and important ecclesiastics.

It was the Sheriff’s duty, too, to act as the king’s financial officer in Hampshire, to collect the royal revenue, including the farms of towns, and also to pay out monies on the king’s behalf. The Sheriff’s accounts had to be audited twice in a year at Easter and Michaelmas at the Exchequer in Westminster Palace, and they were written up in a great formal record known as the Pipe Roll. The earliest surviving roll dates from 1130, though the series is only more or less complete from the reign of Henry II, and the Pipe Rolls are a primary source for the history of local government and its finance, for they show how money flowed from the county into the royal purse. The section of the roll dealing with Hampshire bears the name of the county, and usually has certain well-defined divisions, and Hampshire Sheriffs were usually county gentlemen, professional civil servants. Sir Simon de Winton, Sheriff in 1283, who had previously been mayor of Winchester, had property in many parts of the county—Fuiflood, Lainston, Otter-bourne and Soberton—and was very wealthy, but neither he nor the majority of other Sheriffs can be described as great feudal magnates. Accumulated moneys were left in Winchester Castle in the royal treasury, and although this was moved to Westminster at the end of the 12th century, very large sums were still left in Winchester for the next 100 years: in 1208 nearly six and a half million pennies had to be counted in the Winchester treasury.

The power of the Sheriff, in reality so dependent on the king, was challenged eventually, and successfully, by the larger Hampshire towns; but in the countryside, the growth of local independence was very slow, Saxon courts declined. On some manors where the and the old Anglo  medieval peasant was brave enough to try to insist on his manorial rights, manorial courts could be used to uphold the ancient custom and therefore the ancient rights and privileges of the lord’s tenants. There is plenty of evidence in Domesday to suggest that even a small community could speak its own mind, particularly in matters of taxation. Royal Meon, worth £60, pays £100, ‘but it is not able to bear it’. Bishop’s Meon pays £40, but it is worth only £30, and five royal manors in the Isle of Wight paid £77 instead of their rightful £50. In the late 13th century even an important man like Sir Simon de Winton was called to the Assize to show why he had wrongfully assessed his tenants in Otterbourne; and at Crondall in 1364, where the manor belonged to St. Swithun’s Priory, the tenants complained to the king about additional services and rents demanded from them.

By that time central government was in grave financial difficulties; Edward I’s military expeditions were particularly expensive, and neither he nor his successors cared sufficiently for the county to produce enough money to repair the royal apartments in Winchester Castle, burnt out in a disastrous fire in 1302. William of Wykeham was blamed for the financial disaster of the Hundred Years War, and Richard II’s. notorious poll tax of November 1380, a levy of three groats on every­one over 15 years. of age, added to the general discontent throughout Hampshire and apparently precipitated a rising against the oligarchy in Winchester. Henry V’s French expeditions increased the Crown’s debts, and produced only a measure of temporary war-time prosperity in the ports and in Winchester. All these national difficulties, combined with the decline in population after the Black Death, produced many financial problems and much social unrest. Attempts to fix wages by Statute and to control the movement of labour were entrusted to Hampshire men appointed from 1360 onwards to the new office of Justice of the Peace. In general. terms, it can be said that for the next 500 years what local government there was in the Hampshire country­side was the work of these unpaid magistrates, the maids-of-all-work of central government.

The Reformation and the end of monasticism meant that the task of relieving the poor and needy was placed on the only form of organisation readily available, the parish. The Beggars’ Act of 1536 required parishes to appoint officers to raise and distribute alms, County Justices set up a workhouse in the course of 1576, and the great Poor Relief Act of 1601 became a permanent feature of local government; every parish had to ‘set the poor on work’, under the supervision of the Justices of the Peace. Evasions or arguments between parishes had to be dealt with by magistrates meeting in Quarter Sessions, usually held in some comfortable inn or in a private house, and most Justices were honest, respectable and influential members of the community. It was unfortunate that the political troubles of the 17th century prevented the Hampshire county bench from achieving any measure of impartiality; towns which had their own Commission of the Peace, like Winchester and Southampton, produced other problems, for many town J.P.’s were also members of their local Corporations, and this absence of the separation of powers was unfortunate. Most Justices in fact were unpopular, and the Bench gained the reputation of being ‘against the working classes’.

Magistrates, too, had to oversee the spending of money raised by rates for the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges. A parish with a bridge to maintain which served the county asa whole could only hope to get it taken over as a county responsibility—like the bridge over the Test at Romsey, accepted by the County Magistrates in 1607, and the bridge at Stockbridge in 1639; Redbridge was a very expensive bridge to keep up, because it spanned a tidal river and was frequently damaged. Parishioners whose local roads were also main Hampshire highways were as unfortunate as those with county bridges; Compton was virtually cut in half by the main Southampton-Winchester road, and arguments about the upkeep had to go to Quarter Sessions. The other work of the Hampshire Bench included the upkeep of the County Hall, used for many different trials, including those of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603, and Alicia Lisle in 1685; it was a notoriously difficult building in terms of acoustics, but its brutal partitioning by order of Quarter Sessions in 1764 did not add to its aesthetic appearance. Hampshire owes its splendid renovation in 1871 to Melville Portal, then the chairman of Hampshire Quarter Sessions. Since that date it has again suffered partitioning, but the abolition of Assizes and the opening of the new Crown Courts in Winchester in 1974 has made possible a further restoration.

Prisoners tried in the Hall by County Justices or Assize Judges had to be kept in safe custody or were sometimes returned to imprisonment. There were many differing prisons in medieval Hampshire, in Carisbrooke Castle, at Lyndhurst, Odiham, Portchester, Portsmouth, and Southampton, but the county gaol was in Winchester, and its nominal keeper held by .serjeantry the manor of Woodcote in Bramdean. In reality, the Sheriff dealt with most prison matters. Later on, Quarter Sessions were responsible for the maintenance of the County Prison, on a site in Winchester in Staple Gardens and Jewry Street since the 12th century. In the early 19th century George Moneypenny, the architect, was commissioned to design a debtors’ prison on its Jewry Street frontage, and remnants of this frontage still remain, but the building was eventually replaced in 1847 by a new prison on the Romsey Road, designed by Thomas Stopher, senior, another well-known architect. This is the prison still in use, made famous for all time in the last pages of Tess of the D ‘Urbervilles.

All this important work, work of local government, was carried on by the unpaid magistrates, with the help of a few permanent officials headed by the Clerk of the Peace, always a lawyer, whose income came from fees and not a salary. There were two nominal Treasurers, Magis­trates, for all the funds; but real financial administration was in the hands of a number of paid deputies for specified matters, and when one man was deputy for more than one fund, the work of his present successor, the present-day County Treasurer, had begun. It is not surprising, however, that by the end of the 18th century there were thoughtful people in Hampshire who questioned a system of local government by magistrates who were not elected, and who were spending large sums of public money raised by rates. William Cobbett, the radical politician, detested the High Tory Justices of the county; and even reformers who were less extreme than that farmer from Botley thought that some sort of change must come, and that Hampshire ought to be governed by men who had been elected for the task. The alternatives seemed too dreadful to contemplate: many Hampshire gentlemen had signed the petition ‘against’ the French Revolution in 1793, and the Hampshire Chronicle, aghast at the violence in France, became a High Tory paper. In Southampton there was so much fear of reform that what has been called ‘an alliance for the defence of Society’ came into existence. In 1830, the riots of Hampshire’s agricultural workers were among the most serious in the countryside, and there were serious disturbances at Barton Stacey, Holybourne, Hawkley and Selborne; Sir William Heathcote at Hursley strengthened his house with iron shutters, and there were too many prisoners for the county gaol. The year 1830 probably strengthened the minds of those who believed that the countryside was not yet ready for democracy, and even the great Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 and the reform of the Municipal Corporations in 1835 did not end corruption, nor violence at election time in Hampshire towns, though Stockbridge lost its members of parliament. A list of all electors entitled to vote in every borough in local elections had to be published; the surviving freemen, until they died out, were allowed to vote in all towns and the practice was extended to all resident males over the age of 21 except for the very poorest. The old system had become deplorable: in Portsmouth, with a population of 46,000, the right to vote had been restricted to some 12 persons. Town councils now had to be directly elected for a varied number of wards, councillors served for three years, and there were to be a small number of aldermen (serving six years) elected by the council with the object of providing some continuity. Voting, however, was still open, and lists published after each election showed how votes were cast. Intimidation was possible and not infrequent; noisy and sometimes violent crowds of young men, not able to vote, were active in elections. Moreover, the new councils did not always interest the most able men in the community, who shrank from the rough-and-tumble of a local election; there were too many small local tradesmen on all the new councils, whose interest in rates was wholly negative. Fear of putting up the rates delayed main sewerage in Winchester for over 30 years.

Between 1835 and the Local Government Reform Act of 1888 which set up county councils, something like chaos grew up in local government; local work of all kinds was committed to different kinds of boards. The old Poor Law had been reformed in 1834, and parishes grouped into unions. The old Hundreds may have been the basis of the new union in some counties, but this does not appear to have been the case in Hampshire. Soon a whole variety of Boards were in opera­tion levying rates, and maintaining large staffs of officers: their members in Hampshire were being elected at widely differing times of the year with differing franchises. A Hampshire elector in 1885 in town and county might have to vote, in the same year, for Town Councils, Boards of Guardians of the Poor, Highway Boards, School Boards Lighting Inspectors, and Burial Boards, to mention only a few examples. There was no system; differing boards administered differing work all over the county—in fact, all over England.

Reform in local government came at last in 1888, with a Local Government Act dealing with county government. County Councils were set up, with three-quarters of their members elected direct, the rest being aldermen chosen by the other members. When the first election took place in Hampshire, most of those chosen proved to be county magistrates, and the work of local government was carried on in much the same way as before, although the Great Hall on the Western Hill, with the magistrates’ offices, proved wholly inadequate for the staff of the new authority. Massive extensions of county council offices building became a feature of Winchester’s landscape. The same Reform Act (of 1888) allowed the great towns, Portsmouth, Southamp­ton and eventually Bournemouth, to become county boroughs, virtually independent of the County Council and ‘trading’ direct with central government; their status was determined by the size of their population, fixed at 50,000 in 1888. Attempts to include the. Isle of Wight in the new Hampshire County Council were not successful, and a measure of independence at local level was made possible by the Parish Council Acts of 1894, which also created Urban and District Councils in areas of Hampshire where there was no one specific growing area of population. The boundaries of these new ‘U.D.C.s’ and ‘R.D.C.s’ were those of the old Sanitary Boards.

Before 1972 there was much variety of local government in Hamp­shire, and Eastleigh provides a good example of how much change there could be. The coming of the London-Southampton railway in 1840 transformed an area which was wholly rural, that of the ancient manor of Eastleigh and the ancient parish of Bishopstoke. By 1864 Thomas Chamberlayne had acquired the manor, and began to grant building leases, and in the late 1880s the London and South Western Railway Company moved their carriage and wagon works from Nine Elms to Basingstoke. A place which had started as a village of some 300 houses became an Urban District of 6,000 people, was extended in 1888/9 to include North and South Stoneham and Bishopstoke, and became a boiough by royal charter in 1936.

The war of 1939-45 put a temporary stop to talk of further change in local government, but after it was over the debate was renewed. There were those who thought that the County Council should be abolished, and that Hampshire should be divided into uniform areas each virtually independent of each other, able to communicate with central government direct. There were others who considered that the very foundations of democracy needed strengthening, that parish councils should be given more powers, and that a County Council with certain overall powers might prevent local mistakes, particularly in the fields of planning. Not everybody was very impressed by the new Basingstoke, new Andover, or the rebuilding of central Portsmouth and Southampton.

The Local Government Act of 1972 set up a two-tiered system of local government in Hampshire of County Council and new District Councils. The status of all the long-established boroughs, cities, and county-boroughs, and the more recent Urban and Rural. District Councils, was abolished. Hampshire boundaries were affected, including Bournemouth and Christchurch, which disappeared into Dorset, and the geographical area that remained, was divided up into 13 District Councils, each with its own elected government. Of these
new Councils, three, Portsmouth, Southampton, and Gosport, retained the boundaries of the pre 1975 towns. Other District Councils, Basingstoke, Eastleigh, Havant, Fareham, and Winchester, were based on a town nucleus of the same name; in the New Forest, the district is what its name implies and includes the ancient borough of Lymington. A stranger to the county might be permitted some feeling of uncer­tainty about the boundaries of the other District Councils, Hart, East Hampshire, Rushmoor, and the Test Valley, though these were names chosen after much careful thought. In this new two-tiered local govern­ment the old County Council’s situation was greatly strengthened: former county boroughs, great cities like Portsmouth and Southamp­ton, can no longer control their own educational or highway policies, and, a sore point in a city like Winchester, local libraries are also managed by the county. The Act envisaged the making of agency arrangements for some of these matters, and to some extent the success of the reform in terms of relationship between County Council and District Councils will depend on the success of these agency arrangements. One important result of the first County Council election after the Act was that the County Council has become very political, and the old system of county aldermen was abolished. Aldermen were abolished, too, in the new District Councils, where the new authorities were now required to sever some of their historical connections if they so wished and elect to be ruled by a district chairman instead of a mayor. Districts which have taken the other option, Gosport, Portsmouth, Southampton, Eastleigh, Havant, and Winchester, have district mayors. Small towns lying within Districts which have chairmen are permitted to have town mayors, but the options have produced difficulties. It is easy to understand why the survival of an ancient mayoralty can be troublesome to a District Council, even though town mayors have few real powers, and conversely it is historically difficult to imagine Winchester in particular without its mayoralty, the oldest in Hampshire, and the second oldest in the kingdom.

There are other features of the reform of 1972 which have produced difficulties of administration, and sometimes clashes of personalities. The new councils which contain a large number of civil parishes taken in from old urban or rural district councils are obliged to consult parish councils on a number of important matters, including planning applica­tions, though the parish is not able to determine applications. Finance is a particular problem: a specific purpose of the Act was to end differential rating, the old system by which countrymen paid less than townsmen on the grounds that the townsmen had more amenities. A large proportion of the total rate is levied by the County Council, though collected by the Districts, and used throughout the county for Hampshire matters’ education and roads, to name only two of the biggest spenders. Education consumes half the county’s budget. Rural users still have some slight financial advantage in differential rating, but the gap will soon disappear. It is unfortunate that Local Govern­ment Reform was rushed through parliament in 1972 without any real consideration of the needs of local government finance, which will have to be one day the subject of further reform, perhaps the creation of a separate local income tax. Another difficult matter in terms of finance has proved to be the Act which created new Water Authorities, removed the supplying of water from local authorities, and created new large water undertakings. Most of Hampshire’s water supply is administered by the Southern Water Authority, with a headquarters in Worthing.

Today, more than half of Hampshire’s total population lives in the south of the county, in the districts of Southampton, Eastleigh, Fareham, Gosport, Portsmouth, and Havant. In 1974 the total popu­lation was 1,434,000 people, and if the national fall in the birth rate continues it is difficult to imagine, as used to be suggested, a dramatic increase on a vast scale in the 1980s, though the work of the County Council will continue to be large-scale. In 1976 there were 97 elected members who served on various committees and employed 55,000 people, dealing with Education (including Youth Employment), Planning and Highways, Social Services, Fire Services, Consumer Protection, Refuse Disposal, and Recreation, which includes libraries and museums. One important committee deals with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Constabulary, for the County Council is obliged to find money for the Police Force, and ‘Social Services’ work in close co-operation with the Health Service, the Protection Services and the Police Force. There are few aspects of life, in fact, which are not the concern of the County Council. Historians should not predict the future, but it seems likely that the place of the County Council within an area wider than Hampshire is bound to be discussed if there are realistic proposals for devolution of some central government powers to regional authorities.