3. The Bristol Town Council 1835-2000

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 marked an important watershed in the organisation and administration of local government. Many old Corporations had become notorious for inefficiency and corruption, operating as self-electing political clubs for the ruling oligarchy.19 Bristol's Corporation was no exception, with the thirty Councillors, twelve Aldermen and Mayor all being selected internally by those already in the Chamber. The freemen of the city took no part in this process. The possibilities for abuse were clear, as power had fallen into the hands of a small coterie of merchant families, dominated by the Goldneys, Fripps and Daniels.20 Through self-election the Whigs maintained a majority in the Chamber until 1812 when the two brothers, Abraham and George Hilhouse, changed allegiance to the Tories; thereafter it was the turn of the Tories who were not to relinquish control until 1904.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 gave the franchise to all ratepayers who had dwelt in the borough for at least thirty months. The Boundaries Commission split the city into ten wards, returning between them 48 Councillors. Eligibility for Councillorship was limited to those owning an estate valued at over 1,000 or rated at 30 annually. This property qualification was abolished in 1882. Every year a third of the longest serving Councillors came to the end of their three year term, and were subject to an election. Aldermen and Mayors were still chosen by the entire Chamber (Aldermen for six-year periods, Mayors for just one year), although until the end of the nineteenth century there was a tradition of only electing Aldermen from those outside the Chamber, normally individuals who had either retired from municipal life or who had failed to enter the Chamber at the annual Council elections. The one exception was Thomas Stock, a sitting Councillor, elected to the Aldermanic bench at the inauguration of the reformed Council in 1835.

During the two World Wars periods of office were automatically extended to the end of hostilities so as to avoid unnecessary elections. In this Abstract the end of these extended periods is given in parenthesis alongside the election date. Vacancies created by either death, resignation or elevation to the Aldermanic Bench were filled by a process of internal selection, at which the recommendations of the Selection Committee were often accepted by the full Council.

The Municipal Corporations Act did not break the Tory dominance of Bristol's Council Chamber, as it did in the majority of other boroughs. The old Bristol Whig, Christopher George, voted with the Tories in the election of the first sixteen Aldermen on December 31st 1835, leading to the consequent Tory control of the Aldermanic Bench, although by the end of the century the appointment of Aldermen was conditioned by an unofficial inter-party agreement whereby each party was allowed one Alderman for every three Councillors successfully returned.

The distribution of seats amongst the city's ten wards certainly favoured the Tory cause. Affluent wards such as Clifton and Bristol were given nine seats each; similarly wealthy areas such as St. Augustine and Redcliff were given six. Conversely the predominantly Liberal wards of St. James, Bedminster, St. Paul and St. Philip & St. Jacob were given three seats. As Bush shows, the total municipal electorate of each ward played little part in determining the reallocation.21 This situation was only ended by the boundary changes of 1880 and more especially 1897 when the wards of Horfield, St. George, Stapleton, Somerset and Easton were created. Each ward now returned three Councillors apart from Bristol and Clifton which both returned six. Only after 1906 did all wards in the city return three Councillors. The Tories lost their overall majority in the Council Chamber for the first time in 1904, although they had lost their overall majority amongst the Councillors (excluding Aldermen) from 1897. At no point did the Liberal Party gain an overall majority on the Aldermanic Bench.

The formation of the Trades Council in 1873 augmented the growing socialist movement in the city. In 1885 the Labour League was formed as the Trade Council's political wing, and achieved its first success in 1887 with the election of Robert Gray Tovey, who represented St. Paul from 1887 to his resignation in March 1891. The first Labour Alderman, John Curle, was soon to follow in 1904. However as Kelly and Richardson state, the socialists were certainly not a united front, and Tovey received important support from the Bristol Socialist Society, a diverse amalgam of radical socialists formed in 1885.22 In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was formed with which the majority of local labour activists, excluding the Bristol Socialist Society, cooperated. By the turn of the century there was a total of five Labour Councillors, and by the eve of the First World War this had risen to eight. In 1913 the Labour Party held 196 seats in municipal Councils nationally, an increase of 85 since 1912.23

The First World War presented a serious problem for local Councils: with a significant number of men away fighting, and with the nation in a state of economic and social dislocation, the annual elections became logistically impossible. In 1915 the Government passed the Elections and Registration Act which allowed Council Chambers to extend terms of office until 1916. Thereafter the Local Government (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1916, allowed terms of office to continue until the end of hostilities. Those Councillors that had resigned, died or had been elevated to the Aldermanic Bench were replaced by the nominations of a six-man Selection Committee, whose recommendations were normally accepted by a vote of the full Council Chamber. The Selection Committee consisted of the most prominent of the Chamber's members, as in 1915 when it consisted of Aldermen Charles Gardner, Frank Sheppard, James Eberle and G. E. Davies, and Councillors W. S. A. Brown and Sidney Humphries.

The end of the Great War marked a political turning point for the country, and Bristol was no exception. At the Easton by-election of the 21st May, 1920 Mabel Caroline Tothill was returned as the first female Councillor for the City of Bristol, and four months later Lilian Maud Pheysey joined her at the by-election of St. Philip & St. Jacob North on 27th September, 1920. However it was not until 1932 that the Chamber voted in its first female Alderman, Lilian Maud Pheysey, who was shortly followed by Emily Harriet Smith in 1933. They remained the only female Aldermen until after the war. In these early inter-war years the Labour Party gained in power at the expense of the Liberals, in 1925 having 18 Councillors out of a total Chamber of 69 Councillors (see Table vi).

Significantly it was at the 1926 elections that a new anti-socialist front was implemented, a movement dominated by the Conservatives but also comprising the rump of the Liberal Party. The formation of the Citizen Party was a distinctly local reaction to the rise of the Labour Party, and this sense of parochialism was reinforced retrospectively by the Party's leader, J. H. Inskip, in an election pamphlet of 1947 in which he stated, 'I have yet to learn what is to be gained by building up an opposition to the Socialist Party in the City Council by electing stray individuals ... all working separately and confusing local and domestic questions with their political slogans and theories'.24

By combining local parochialism with antipathy to Labour Party socialism, the Citizen Party proved particularly successful in arresting the dramatic rise of the Labour Party in the late 1920s. After the local elections of November 1932 the Labour Party was reduced to 25 Councillors whereas the Citizen Party had 40, though this outcome was not solely attributable to local causes as the local Labour Party suffered the consequences of the serious reverses which followed the fall of the Labour Government in the national crisis of 1931.

As in the First World War, the outbreak of the Second World War led to the passing of the Local Elections and Register of Electors (Temporary Provisions) Act in 1939 by which the period of office of those Aldermen and Councillors due to retire after the end of November 9th, 1939 was extended until December 31st, 1940.25 This was further extended until June 30th, 1942, and then until the end of the war.26 Once again candidates for by-elections were selected by members of the Council's Selection Committee under the terms of the Local Election Act for approval by the Chamber.

The Representation of the People Act in 1945 stipulated that the ordinary election of Councillors should be resumed on November 1st, 1945, and the election of Aldermen on November 9th, 1945; the order of the retirement of those Councillors elected in 1945 was also stipulated in the Act:27

1. If one Councillor was to be elected for a ward in 1945, the Councillor so elected should retire in 1948. Of the two existing Councillors, the one with the longer term of office will retire in 1946, and the other in 1947.
2. If two Councillors were to be elected for a ward in 1945, then the Councillor not required to retire in 1945 will retire in 1946. The Councillor elected in 1945 with the smaller number of votes will retire in 1947, and the other in 1948.
3. If three Councillors were elected, the one with the smallest number of votes will retire in 1946, the Councillor with the next smallest will retire in 1947, with the remaining Councillor retiring in 1948.

Under this legislation, all surviving Councillors who had been elected in 1936, and whose three year term of office would have terminated in November 1939, faced immediate elections in 1945. Thereafter, the electoral sequence was re-established. The term of office of those elected in 1937 and 1938 terminated in 1946 and 1947 respectively. The Representation of the People Act in 1948 introduced further changes. As has been already noted, not only did the Act bring the municipal franchise into line with the parliamentary franchise, but the timing of local elections was changed from the first week in November to a day in the week beginning with the Sunday before May 9th at the Secretary of State's discretion.28 The election and retirement of Councillors, Aldermen and the Mayor in 1948 was postponed until full local elections in May 1949, and any vacancy occurring within six months of the 9th May, 1949 was not to be filled before the election.

After 1945 the fortunes of the parties fluctuated. Throughout most of the 1950s it was the Labour Party that held a sizable majority over the Citizen Party. However the Citizen Party regained control in the early 1960s, which it held until 1971 when both parties held 42 seats each; the following year the Labour Party gained 57 seats against the Citizen Party's 27. With the redistribution of seats in 1973, the Citizen Party broke apart, and for the first time since the 1920s local elections were contested between Labour, Conservative and Liberal candidates: Labour winning 37, Conservatives 17 and the Liberals 2. From 1973 until 1997 the Labour Party has remained the largest party in Bristol City Council.

Under the terms of the Local Government Act of 1972 the county of Bristol was to cease to exist in April 1974. Instead a new county, known before the implementation of the Act as Area No. 26, was created which comprised the existing boroughs of Bristol and Bath, the borough of Weston-super-Mare, the urban districts of Kingswood, Mangotsfield, Clevedon, Frome, Keynsham, Norton-Radstock and Portishead; the rural districts of Sodbury, Thornbury, Warmley, Bathavon, Clutton, Frome, and Long Ashton, and a number of parishes in the rural district of Axbridge and Steep Holm Island.29 The Bristol Town Council was asked to propose a name for Area No. 26, and after a period of deliberation the Selection Committee rejected 'Avon', 'Severn' and 'Severnside' because of their reference to rivers. 'After careful thought your committee are of the opinion that the proposed new county area should be named 'The County of Bristol'. In coming to this conclusion they have had regard to the fact that Bristol has been a county by charter since 1373...'.30 The report was approved and adopted by the Chamber but was rejected by central government; and in 1974 the County of Avon was formed. Under the Local Government Act of 1972 each ward within the City of Bristol was still represented by three Councillors, but two sat on Bristol City Council and one on Avon County Council at Avon House. Officially the County of Bristol was abolished at midnight on March 31st, 1974 when the Mayor, Walter William Jenkins, ceremonially removed his chain of office and thereby ended just over six-hundred years of county status for the city.31 Twenty-two years later the County of Avon was abolished and Bristol became a unitary authority, combining the functions of a district and a county council.

Since 1835 over 2,600 individuals have stood either successfully or unsuccessfully in Bristol's local government elections. Such elections for either Councillor, Alderman, or Mayor are all chronicled in this Abstract, forming a unique story of Bristol's municipal history. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the influence of some of Bristol's more traditional trades was still to be found represented in the Council Chamber. For example in the Chamber of November 1850 there were four prominent African merchants (Richard Jenkins Poole King, William Thomas Poole King, Robert Bruce and Charles Pinney), two soap manufacturers (John George Shaw and Christopher Thomas), and the sugar manufacturer, John Vining. However by 1890 a significant change had occurred. Family names which would have been familiar to those living in the first half of the nineteenth century had been replaced by a new generation of entrepreneurs specialising in a wide range of economic activities that had not yet been represented among the city's socio-economic elite. In the Council Chamber of that year there was but a single African merchant, John Lucas, and representatives from the sugar and soap industries had disappeared completely. Instead there were now three successful timber merchants (Charles Hoskins Low, Henry Low, and Charles Nash), three leather merchants (Herbert Ashman, William Albina Latham and William Howell Davies), three building contractors (Samuel Lloyd, William Mereweather and Ian Bastow), and a perambulator manufacturer (Henry William Twiggs). Ten years later the first skilled artisans began to make an impression as two carpenters, John Curle and William Henry Elkins, sat in the Chamber for the Labour and Liberal parties respectively.

Over the next twenty years the successful parvenus that had come to dominate the Council Chamber, such as the Wills, Frys, Robinsons, Hares, and Proctor-Bakers, disappeared. This was a result of the changing fortunes of the various economic concerns within the city but also the changing role and functions performed by such local administrative bodies. Certainly there did appear to be a tendency for the second and third generation to move away from municipal involvement, seeking instead membership of closed, high-status societies such as the Society of Merchant Venturers. Of the five sons of Henry Overton Wills (II) (1800 - 1871) three appeared at some point in the Council Chamber. Of Henry Overton Wills's grandchildren, only one followed his illustrious grandfather into the Chamber, that being T. Thornton Wills between 1936 and 1949 for Knowle Ward when he was elevated to the Aldermanic bench, resigning his position in 1952. Yet three of the grandchildren, George A. Wills, Henry Herbert Wills and Walter Melville Wills became members of the Society of Merchant Venturers in 1919, 1921 and 1929 respectively.

By 1931 the city's bourgeoisie were being joined by significant elements of lower middle-class and working-class Councillors. Also apparent was the growth of local political organisations as a notable element of trade union secretaries and organisers began to appear, along with postal workers and small shopkeepers. With the Local Government Act of 1948 this trend was accelerated as Councillors could at last claim for loss of earnings 'necessarily suffered or incurred for the purposes of enabling him to perform any approved duty as a member of that body'.32

The vision of those mid- to late-nineteenth-century entrepreneurs, and the importance which they attached to municipal work is difficult to ignore. The lawyer, John Kerle Haberfield, who held the Mayoralty a record seven times between 1836-37, 1838-39 and 1848-51, is illustrative of this point. Richard Robinson holds the record for the longest serving Alderman, occupying the Aldermanic Bench for thirty-seven years between 1841 and 1878. The longest serving Councillor without a break was William Thomas Poole King who served Redcliffe Ward for 39 years between 1841 and 1880. His brother, Richard Jenkins Poole King, served just over 38 years for the same ward between 1836 and 1874, providing a unique family hold over this six-seat ward which amounted to over 77 years between the two of them.

More recently, Jack Fisk was a Councillor from 1954 to 1998, with only two breaks from 1960 to 1961 and 1967 to 1971. Robert Wall has been a Councillor since 1959, a total of 41 years, with a short gap from 1971 to 1973 when he was elected to the Aldermanic Bench, although he has never served as Mayor. The present Mayor, Graham Robertson, is currently serving his third consecutive term of office, the first to do so since Charles Wathen, who was elected four times from 1887 to 1890.

One of the most determined and yet unsuccessful candidates appeared immediately after the Second World War: Don D. Pratt who on no less than 19 occasions between 1946 and 1979 stood on behalf of the Communist Party in a number of wards. His highest number of votes was 391 achieved in his last attempt in 1979 for Avon Ward.

Since 1835 the boundaries of the city have undergone a series of extensions. At various times over the last 160 years the city's municipal wards have needed revision to take into account such changes (see Table vi). The first came in 1880 when the original ten wards of Bristol, Clifton, Redcliffe, St. Augustine, St. Michael, St. James, Bedminster, St. Paul, St. Philip and District became thirteen through the creation of the ward of Westbury, and the splitting of St. Philip Ward into St. Philip South and St. Philip North, and Bedminster Ward into Bedminster East and Bedminster West. The Chamber still consisted of 48 Councillors and 16 Aldermen; this didn't change until the more extensive reorganisation of 1897 when five new wards were created: Horfield, Stapleton, Easton, St. George, and Somerset. The Chamber now consisted of 84 members (63 Councillors and 21 Aldermen). In 1904 Westbury-on-Trym was created, and the ward of Westbury was extended and renamed Redland, giving Bristol 22 wards and a Chamber of 86 members. In 1906 this increased to 92, with the division of Clifton into Clifton North and Clifton South, St. George into St. George East and St. George West, Bristol into Central West and Central East, and the creation of a new ward, Southville. There were now 23 wards, 69 Councillors and 23 Aldermen.

The next major redistribution occurred in 1936. In all 12 wards were created and seven wards were abolished. However all those sitting Councillors of abolished wards were transferred to the new wards in the following manner: the two sitting Councillors of Bedminster East were transferred to the new ward of Windmill Hill; Bedminster West to the new ward of Bedminster; Central East to the new ward of Westbury-on-Trym; Central West to the new ward of Brislington; Clifton North to the new ward of Durdham; Clifton South to the new ward of Clifton; and Westbury-on-Trym to the new and extended ward of Westbury-on-Trym. The third Councillor for each of these new wards was elected in the usual way. Three further wards were created, Eastville, Hengrove, and Hillfields, where all three Councillors were elected. Lastly the two new wards of Bishopston and Somerset had the two sitting Councillors from Horfield and Somerset transferred to them respectively. Since both Horfield and Somerset were not abolished, these two wards elected three Councillors each in the 1936 elections. Bristol now consisted of 28 wards returning 84 Councillors.

In 1954 six new wards were created, and six wards were abolished. The two sitting Councillors for each of the abolished wards were transferred to the new wards in the following manner: the two sitting Councillors for the abolished ward of Redcliffe were transferred to the new ward of Bishopsworth; St. Philip & St. Jacob North to Southmead; St. Philip & St. Jacob South to St. Philip & St. Jacob; St. Augustine to Henbury; St. James to Stockwood; and St. Michael to Cabot. Despite these alterations to the city's internal political boundaries, the number of wards and the size of the Council Chamber remained unchanged.

In 1974 the County of Avon was created, and the City and County of Bristol ceased to exist. Under the Local Government Act of 1972 a new Bristol District Council was created with jurisdiction over the city. It consisted of 56 Councillors with two Councillors from each of the 28 wards; the Aldermanic Bench was abolished and replaced by Honorary Aldermen who held practically no powers. Avon County Council was simultaneously created, consisting of 73 Councillors and 67 wards with jurisdiction over the new county which included the city boroughs of Bristol and Bath, as well as parts of the counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire. In 1981 the number of wards and Councillors for Avon County Council was increased to 76.

In 1983 Bristol District Council had fourteen new wards created and eight abolished. For the first time there was no system of transference. Although some Councillors continued their municipal career in the new wards, each had to face re-election. The abolished wards were Avon, Brislington, District, Durdham, Somerset, St. Philip & St. Jacob, Stapleton, and St. Paul. The new wards were Ashley, Avonmouth, Brislington East, Brislington West, Cotham, Filwood, Frome Vale, Hartcliffe, Henleaze, Kingsweston, Lawrence Hill, Lockleaze, Stoke Bishop, and Whitchurch Park. With these changes the City of Bristol consisted of 34 wards, each returning two Councillors to Bristol City Council. The most recent change occurred in 1999 when the boundaries of the existing wards were redrawn and a new ward, Clifton East, was created, bringing the total number of councillors to 70.