The boroughs of England and Wales in the eighteenth century gave evidence of marked and progressive decay.  The rights and privileges embodied in their charters differed enormously from one borough to another but, in general, they were intended to ensure the preservation of the ancient customs of the borough and to safeguard the commercial interests of the burgesses.  With the passage of time the significance of these privileges dwindled and many corporations would have ceased to function altogether had it not been for the possession of property which had to be administered and, in the case of some boroughs, of rights of parliamentary representation. Some had become small, inefficient bodies, which renewed themselves by co-option and which served no interests but their own.  The Reform Act of 1832, by the creation of a uniform borough franchise, removed the main source of the corrupt political power of such boroughs as had rights of representation.  Moreover, the reform of the central govern­ment in 1832 was naturally followed by the reform of the various organs of local government and, in 1833, parliament instituted a royal commission of inquiry into the municipal corporations of England and Wales.  The commissioners did their work with great thoroughness and published, in 1835, a valuable report, together with five volumes of appendixes which dealt with individual boroughs, as well as an additional volume, in 1838, dealing with fourteen boroughs which had been overlooked, eleven of which were Welsh, and finally, in 1840, an enormous and exhaustive index volume of some 700 pages.[1]  The admirable reports on individual boroughs give a vivid picture of the stagnation and decay into which many of them had fallen.  The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which followed the report, swept away obsolete and un­representative institutions and replaced them by a uniform system of local govern­ment based upon election by the ratepayers.  Some of the smaller boroughs which had no rights of parliamentary representation were, however, left untouched.

Among the latter was the borough of Kidwelly which was reported upon by James Booth, a barrister, who was later to become celebrated as a parliamentary drafts­man.[2] He reported that the borough existed under a charter granted in the sixteenth year of the reign of James I (1618).[3]  There was no map or plan of the borough extant, but its boundaries were perambulated annually and were well-known and undisputed.  They measured some fifteen miles in circumference.  The population of the borough at the census of 1831 was 1,435.  Of these, however, only about one in ten were burgesses, although the number was not fixed by the charter.  The eldest sons of burgesses, born after the admission of their fathers, were burgesses by right, but the common council had the power to elect whomsoever it pleased.  In practice the mayor could nominate during his term of office one burgess, who was thereupon elected by the common council, and, according to the commissioner (although this was disputed in 1880), it was also the practice to sell the freedom of the borough for such sums as might be agreed upon between the applicant and the common council, these sums generally not exceeding £5.  In 1835 the resident burgesses numbered seventy-five, but it was supposed that there were, in addition, some sixty-five who were non-resident.  Their sole privilege was that of grazing five head of cattle and thirty head of sheep on the unenclosed land belonging to the corporation.

The governing body of the corporation was the common council of twenty-four members, of whom twelve were aldermen and twelve were principal burgesses.  The principal burgesses were chosen from among the burgesses by the common council itself, and held office for life, although they were generally removed if they became non-resident.  They had no salary or emoluments.  The aldermen were chosen, again for life, from among them, and the mayor was elected annually by the common council from among the aldermen.  He had no salary, but he received certain payments in the form of tolls and of fees for affixing the common seal to leases granted by the corpora­tion, his emoluments amounting in all to some £10 a year.  The corporation had the usual officers.  The recorder had to be learned in the law, but received no salary or fees.  (In 1835 he was, in fact, John Jones, M.P., of Ystrad, near Carmarthen, best known for his opposition to the abolition of the Courts of Great Sessions.)  He appointed a deputy, who, in 1835, was William Jones the town clerk of Carmarthen, and he, also, was non-resident.  The deputy was solicitor for the borough in its legal business, but this was trifling in amount.  The borough’s own town clerk was also required to be learned in the law, although in practice he had no qualifications.  He received a fee of 13s. 4d. on the admission of a burgess, and some £7—8 a year in fees as magistrates’ clerk.  The chamberlain collected the rents on the property of the borough and received a poundage of 2s. on the money he collected. Finally the sergeants at mace, who attended on the mayor and acted as criers of the court, received a salary of £1. 1 2s. 6d. each, and a fee of 2s. 6d. between them on the admission of every burgess.

The possibility of very grave abuse within this self-continuing body lay in two of its aspects.  In the first place the corporation had considerable rights of criminal and civil jurisdiction.  The mayor and one alderman (generally the retiring mayor), together with the recorder, or his deputy, were magistrates, and had the power to try all offences short of felony.  They met regularly in quarter sessions, and in petty sessions as required.  But the recorder and his deputy, as we have seen, were both non-resident, and the two resident magistrates might be, and frequently were, illiterate.  It is true that the civil Court of Record, provided for in the charter, which should meet every alternate Monday for the trial of all cases under £200 in amount, had scarcely ever met for a quarter of a century, and that the hundred court, which should meet before the mayor every three weeks, had fallen entirely into disuse.

The second possibility arose from the possession of considerable property.  This con­sisted of some fifty acres of enclosed land, let on long leases to a large number of tenants at a total rental of £58.13s. 2d., in addition to twenty acres recently enclosed, let at a yearly rent of £42. 10s.  In addition there were chief rents belonging to the corporation amounting to £13. 13s. 4d., made up of very small amounts, but the corporation itself had to pay a chief rent of £13. 14s. 0½d., a payment originally made to the Crown, but, in 1835, vested in Lord Clive.  In all, the net yearly income of the corporation from rents and tolls amounted to over a hundred pounds, but nevertheless, in 1835, it was in debt to the extent of £430, of which £144 was due to Lord Clive for arrears of chief rent.  The accounts were, in fact, irregularly kept, and although they should have been audited annually by the common council this was frequently not done. Finally the borough owned some 730 acres of unenclosed land.

There is no indication in the Report that there was very much amiss in the borough. Nevertheless Kidwelly was, economically, in a state of decay.  Its commerce had declined with the silting-up of the river and with the growth of the neighbouring towns of Carmarthen and Llanelly.  Its iron works had been abandoned, and its tin works operated on a very limited scale.  A lease of copper mines under the unenclosed land had recently been let for £24 a year, but it was terminable at pleasure by the tenant on three months’ notice, and it came to nothing.  A contemporary could describe Kidwelly as ‘almost entirely sunk in decay’, the majority of its houses being ‘thatched cottages of very inferior appearance ’.[4]

Probably it was the thorny problem of enclosures which caused most trouble at this time.  The fringes of the common land, here as elsewhere, were the habitations of ‘turbulent and violent persons’,[5] who proved a source of annoyance to the towns­people.  There were six constables in the borough, but they were stated in the Report of 1835 to be ‘inattentive to the discharge of their duties’, no doubt because the borough did not have sufficient funds to pay them.  Their neglect of duty was also, to some extent, responsible for conditions on the unenclosed common itself, for its grazing had become monopolized by a dozen or so of the more substantial farmers.[6] These would strenuously resist any attempt at an equitable division of the common among the burgesses, many of whom, it is true, were too poor to own any stock.  There is reason to believe that the enclosed land, as well, was let, on long leases, at a rent which in no way corresponded to its value.  Matters were complicated in 1830 by an act of parliament[7] which enclosed 2,000 acres of land in the parishes of Kidwelly, St. Ishmael, and Pembrey.  A surveyor, William Hand, was appointed commissioner under the act, and he, in time, announced in the Carmarthen Journal[8] his intention to sell, on 17 December 1839, certain small lots to cover expenses.  Immediately there appeared an advertisement, signed by George Stevens, town clerk of Kidwelly, warning anyone who should purchase these lots ‘that every legal remedy would be resorted to to punish trespass on the said property or any wrong done to the corporation’.[9]  The com­missioner retorted that the sale would take place nevertheless.[10]  The impasse, however, continued for years, and when, in 1841, the commissioner invited tenders for an embankment across the Gwendraeth Fawr, the town clerk again renewed his warning and threatened litigation.[11]

Meanwhile certain individuals were busily occupied in getting pieces of land on lease from the corporation at a nominal rent, and between 1835 and 1840 about a hundred acres were ‘lost’.[12]  No entries of these leases were made in the minute book, and the grants can only be deduced from the rent roll.  In April 1843 the common council decided that the whole of the corporation lands not already enclosed should be sur­veyed and mapped by a Mr. Edmund Blathwayt and divided among such resident burgesses as were entitled to a share.  This was done on leases for ninety-nine years, and it was shown in 1880 that land worth £2. 10s. an acre had been let at 2s. 6d. and 3s. 9d.[13]

Matters were brought to a head through the presence in Kidwelly at this time of Hugh Williams, the stormy petrel of Welsh political life in the early nineteenth century.  He was a distant relative of William Jones, the all-powerful town clerk of Carmarthen who was deputy recorder of Kidwelly, but he was not on good terms with him.  Williams’s wife was Ann Jones of Plwmpcoch, Kidwelly, a woman twenty-five years his senior but possessed of considerable property at St. Clears and elsewhere, and he had settled in Kidwelly.  His activities in connexion with the Chartist movement in 1839, and the Rebecca Riots in 1843, are well-known.  It is noteworthy that, at a mass-meeting held at Allt Cunedda near Kidwelly on 27 September 1843, he should have praised the corporation, ‘composed of stern unflinching farmers and able indus­trious mechanics’, as being ‘one of the most independent in the kingdom’.  ‘It had’, he said, ‘withstood all assaults against its privileges and independence’, and he took pride in the fact that he had ‘so far shared, if not led, in its triumph’.[14]  Yet, in 1846, he prepared an enormously long Statement (which runs in manuscript to over twenty-six large folio pages) on the condition of the corporation of Kidwelly,[15] and submitted it together with an accompanying letter, dated 7 January 1847, to the Home Secretary.  The accompanying letter itself is very lengthy.  In it Williams explained that he was acting on behalf of several burgesses and inhabitants as well as himself. He claimed that the self-elective common council of Kidwelly was corrupt, that it had dissipated the corporation property, and that its magistrates were unfit to hold commissions of the peace.  He asked for an investigation, which, he thought, would lead the Crown to institute quo warranto proceedings with a view to the elimination of the borough.  For his bona fides he referred the Home Secretary to Richard Cobden (Williams’s brother-­in-law), to David Morris, the member for Carmarthen1 and to four others including the vicars of Llanelly, Kidwelly, and St. Jshmael.

The Statement must surely be the most remarkable document relating to any Welsh borough in the nineteenth century, for it deals, in minute detail, with the day-to-day working of the corporation and with the personalities of its members.  It starts with an analysis of the charter of James I (of which a full copy was also supplied) and shows how the self-elective system of local government had become the basis of all rotten boroughs.  With the decay of the town the common councillors had become increasingly ignorant, so that they were now nearly all ‘quite illiterate’.  Several of them could scarcely write their names; few could understand English.  Moreover the majority of the councillors were small farmers whose interests were different from those of the non-agrarian townspeople.  It was the farmers who had arranged the enclosures of the commons in their own interests.  They had contrived to get possession of the best pieces of land on ninety-nine year leases at 2s. 6d. an acre, and the ordinary burgesses had to be content with what was left, some twenty of them receiving none at all.  The poorer classes of the town had been deprived of facilities for turning their poultry on to the common.  There had been no provision for roads or footpaths, and none for the recreation of the townspeople.  The sanitation of the town was shamefully neglected.  There were dung heaps and about a dozen pig-sties on the streets.  Within the town there were two small wells from which water was drawn by hand, but a quarter of a mile to the north there was a spring well which could have afforded an admirable supply.  The water was, however, allowed to run uncovered in open gutters through three streets, and the pigs and poultry which walked in it, together with the dung-hills and the privies, made it unusable and a danger to public health.

In no respect is the Statement more scathing than in its account of the administration of justice.  Not only were the magistrates ignorant, they were also dissipated.  On one occasion in the summer of 1846 both resident magistrates, sitting in petty sessions, had been intoxicated. Justice had therefore become ‘a solemn farce’. Disorderly conduct was continually taking place in the streets and no one interfered. A policeman had been appointed by the parish in August 1844 but he had been discharged after twelve months on grounds of expense.  The policeman accused the two magistrates of ‘acts of profligacy and misbehaviour . . . such as scarcely could have been contemplated in a civilised country’.  Throughout the Statement the emphasis is on dissipation.  Evidence could be produced to the effect that the common council had spent nearly £300 between 1838 and 1845 on ale and tobacco. Councillors repaired to the Pelican Inn before they met in ‘Hall’, and settled their affairs beforehand, and then frequently ‘finished the day in drunkenness and uprorious jollity’.  When they met in January 1845 to authorize the mayor to attend the funeral of Sir William Nott, the Carmarthen general, they ‘got vociferously drunk’ and ended their meeting with three cheers for the deceased.

Throughout the Statement there are vivid pen pictures of the borough notabilities, and it ends with an Appendix which discusses individually each one of the twenty-four members of the corporation, with a table to illustrate their consanguinity.  The mayor and his immediate predecessors may be noticed here. Thomas Thomas, the mayor, was a farmer, maltster, and land agent.  He was a person of much influence, and the town clerk, who was his nephew, owed his office to him.  He had been one of the most active in despoiling the corporation lands and had secured the best pieces for himself, his nephew, and his friends.  Before he had given up the Pelican Inn, the greater part of the surplus corporation funds for twenty years had been ‘swallowed up at his place’.  His predecessor (who was, on that account, also a magistrate) was John Williams, a cobbler and gardener who went about the countryside selling garden seeds.  He was frequently drunk.  So also was David Williams, a small farmer who was related to nearly everyone on the council.  John Gower, a carpenter, could write little beyond his name, and was a man of intemperate habits, while Philip Howells, who had been mayor when the common lands had been shared out in 1843, was a small farmer, said to be insolvent.  He was quite illiterate and was intemperate, it being stated that he could drink four gallons of strong ale at one sitting.

The Statement claimed that the borough of Kidwelly had escaped extinction in 1835 through the adroitness of its recorder, the late John Jones, M.P., and since then it had continued unaltered because of the difficulty and expense involved in drawing up a case.  Many people in the locality were afraid to offend the members of the common council.  The Statement did not advocate the destruction of the corporation, but the modification of its charter in accordance with the Municipal Corporations Act.  This, it stated, was all the more urgent since a railway was now being built through the town, so that it might well increase in size and prosperity in the immediate future.

Hugh Williams and his associates were to be disappointed, for the Statement was returned to them, although there is no indication of the reply which they received from the Home Office.  Nothing daunted, eight householders, John Lewis, William Thomas, William Richards, Thomas Lloyd, William Morris, David Harris, John Barnett, and Thomas Phillips, wrote at great length to the Home Secretary on 13 March, and again forwarded the Statement.  Hugh Williams did not sign this letter, but it is written in the same hand as the first letter, and for their bona fides the eight house­holders referred the Home Secretary to Hugh Williams himself, and to the Vicar of Kidwelly.  Once more the Statement came back with a letter indicating that the complaint was a matter not for the Home Office, but for the law courts.  Yet again, on 5 April, John Lewis, writing ‘for self and others’, sent an enormously long letter, rehearsing all the arguments, and, this time, on 8 April, the Home Office wrote to ask if the persons signing these letters were prepared to meet any legal proceedings arising out of the charges.  They promptly replied (14 April) that they were prepared to do so and added specific charges of neglect of duty by the magistrates within the previous two weeks.  The Home Secretary thereupon asked them to send him their Statement again.  This was done on 23 April, and immediately on its receipt it was sent back to Kidwelly (26 April), but this time it was to the mayor for his comments. Williams claimed they must have been stupefied by the twenty-six folio pages of charges in legal terminology which they were now called upon to rebut.  Their town clerk acknowledged receipt of the document on 4 May, but a letter from the Home Office, dated 27 May, asking for an immediate report, was necessary before they produced their reply, which was received at the Home Office on 3 June.  Mercifully it is shorter than the Statement, for it consists of only six large folio pages, beautifully engrossed.  It is written throughout in a tone of injured innocence.  The Statement, it claimed, was the work of persons who were not disinterested in their motives, and the charges made were so general (they are in fact meticulously detailed) that they could be answered only by a positive denial.  The cogent argument was advanced that the searching inquiry made fourteen years previously (that is, before the Municipal Cor­porations Act) had brought to light none of these abuses.  The town of Kidwelly was admittedly depressed, but that was due to economic causes and not to the acts of the corporation.  If the members of the corporation were humble men with an inadequate knowledge of English, that was no reason for depriving the borough of its charter.  Its recorders, John Jones, M.P., James Evans, and Sir E. V. Williams (now a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas) were all eminent men, and so were their deputies.  The town clerk was a man of great experience, and discharged his duties with zeal and attention.  It was needless to go through all the charges seriatim, or to notice the vulgar abuse cast at the members of the corporation; due process of law, they said, could be instituted by the complainants if necessary.

Impatiently, John Lewis, ‘for self and others’, wrote again on 3 July asking what progress had been made, and offering to supply still further details of abuses.  He understood that the corporation had had only one meeting to consider the charges.  The Home Secretary, however, replied (6 July) that he had carefully considered the case and that the Government could not intervene, though the parties concerned could bring it before the Court of Queen’s Bench if they thought fit.  This produced from Lewis a lengthy letter (8 July) again stating the case and outlining the whole corre­spondence, and asking permission to see the corporation’s reply.  The Home Office was, no doubt, tired of Kidwelly by this time, for the letter is endorsed ‘Nil’ (i.e. no reply necessary), and a pencilled note shows that the Home Office realized that while the signatory was Lewis, the letters ‘were prepared for him by an attorney’ (i.e. by Hugh Williams), although the latter’s character was strangely misunderstood when it was implied that his motive was that he ‘probably wants a job’.  The Home Office was not, however, to be left in peace, for Lewis had already, on 10 July, forwarded perhaps the longest letter of all, making still further charges.  This again is endorsed ‘Nil’.  On 9 September he wrote at moderate length asking for the return of the Statement, hut got no satisfaction.  The correspondence ends with a last, stupendous letter from Lewis, dated 6 December.  It was concerned mainly with replying to the charge, which he understood to have been made, that the complainants had been actuated by malice.  He again asked to see the corporation’s reply and to have the Statement returned.  The only response which he received was that nothing could be added to the answers.

Later in the century the condition of the boroughs not subject to the Municipal Corporations Act (some 101 in all) again came under consideration.  On this occasion the commissioners did not visit the boroughs in person, but circularized the local functionaries asking them whether the report of 1835 was correct for that year and what changes had since taken place.  Where they thought it necessary they summoned one or more officials from a borough for viva voce examination.  There is no reason to suppose that they knew of the 1847 correspondence (which for thirty years had been buried away among the unused papers of the Home Office) but, fortunately, they inquired minutely into the condition of Kidwelly and reproduced in full the evidence given by Thomas Williams Angell Evans, the mayor, George Spurrell, the town clerk, and John Morgan, the chamberlain.[16]  It was found that the Report of 1835 was sub­stantially correct.  The greatest difficulty, however, was experienced in explaining the position with regard to the corporation lands.  In 1835 the unenclosed common land had amounted to 730 acres; now the total landed property of the borough (all of it enclosed) amounted to 567 acres.  It was suggested that the former figure might have been exaggerated, or that it included land subject to flooding and not included in the latter figure.  Recourse was had to written evidence (which has been quoted above) from Edmund Blathwayt, the land surveyor who had conducted the enclosure of 1843. Evidently the position was unsatisfactory, but the commissioners did not draw any conclusion from it.  They did, however, point out that land worth £2. 10s. an acre was let at long lease for 2S. 6d.

The witnesses denied that the corporation was ‘unreformed’.  Accounts were properly kept, and there were no cases known to the witnesses where the franchise of the borough had been bought.  Their evidence with regard to festivities was contradictory.  It was admitted that there were twenty ale houses of long standing in the little borough, but whereas the town clerk stated that no corporation funds were spent on dinners, the mayor was more precise and said that none had been spent the previous year for reasons of economy.  On an average between £8 and £9 was spent annually in this way.  By this time the town had an adequate water-supply, which was a source of revenue.  The witnesses were closely questioned about the inexperience of the magistrates, and it was admitted that a burgess might be appointed mayor and thus become a magis­trate without any experience.  They professed, however, that there was no dissatisfac­tion in the town, and that they had heard of no one who wanted to alter the corporation.  The commissioners in their general report included Kidwelly in a list of boroughs where municipal institutions might usefully be retained, recommending that they should be placed under the Municipal Corporations Act. They based their recommendations on the size of the population of a borough and on the nature and extent of the magisterial functions exercised there.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1882 enacted that charters of incorporation could only be granted on petition by inhabitant householders and on the advice of the Privy Council.  Thereupon, in September 1883, certain householders of Kidwelly presented such a petition, and a charter was granted by Order in Council on 24 June 1885.  On 3 May of the following year the inhabitants of Kidwelly again petitioned for minor modifications and these were also accepted.[17]  Thereby the ancient corporation of Kidwelly ceased to exist and was replaced by a municipal borough on the modern pattern.

David Williams.

[1] First Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Municipal Corporations in England and Wales, 1835; Appendices to the First Report, 1835 (the Welsh reports are included in Vol. I, Western District, and Vol. IV, North-Western District); Reports on Certain Boroughs drawn by T J. Hogg, 1838 (this volume contains reports on Bala, Conway, Criccieth, Llanfyllin, Lianidloes, Machynlleth, Montgomery, Nevin, Newtown, Pwllheli, and Welshpool); Analytical Index to the Reports of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into Municipal Corporations, 1840.

[2] A summary of his report appears in First Report, p.104; the report itself is in Appendix I, 271—6.

[3] This is reproduced in D. Daven Jones, A History of Kidwelly (1908), pp.131—56, where it is wrongly dated 1619.

[4] S. Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Wales, 1833, sub nom.

[5] Written evidence submitted by Edmund Blathwayt, a land surveyor, in Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into Municipal Corporations not subject to the Municipal Corporations Act, 1880, ii, 692.

[6] Ibid., loc. cit.

[7] II George IV, c. 16.

[8] Carmarthen Journal, 1 November 1839.

[9] Carmarthen Journal, 8 November 1839.

[10] Ibid., 25 November 1839.

[11] Welshman, 12 March 1841 and 2 April 1841.

[12] Report, 1880, loc. cit.

[13] Ibid., p. 701; extracts from Corporation Minute Book.

[14] Welshman, 29 September 1843.

[15] Public Record Office: Home Office papers, 45/1811; Complaints against the corrupt Corporation of Kidwelly. Colonel Love, the officer commanding troops in South Wales, reported to the Home Office that Hugh Williams had succeeded in getting up this petition and had persuaded the vicar, the Reverend Thomas Griffiths, to take the lead. Col. Love to Home Office, 6 January 1847, H.O. 45/1431. (This letter is dated 6 January 1846, but this is evidently a slip on the part of the writer.)

[16] The report on Kidwelly is in Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into Municipal Corporations not subject to the Municipal Corporations Act, 1880, i. 50-53, and the minutes of evidence in ibid. ii. 687—702.

[17] The documents are in D. Daven Jones, op. cit., pp. 157—69.

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