Westonians objected to rate of ninepence in the pound

Bitter controversies have marked Weston-super-Mare's local government through the years, and from the resort's earliest days its people

Bitter controversies have marked Weston-super-Mare's local government through the years, and from the resort's earliest days its people have always resented having to pay rates. They even objected to them when they were but ninepence in the pound!The town has never lacked forward-looking folk eager to plan for its future, and to invest their own and the ratepayers' money in their schemes. Some grandiose ideas came to nothing, others were expensive failures, and there have been those that have made Weston what it is.The Domesday records tells us that the boss around here in those days was one Herluin, who held the manor of "Aisecome" (Ashcombe) from the Bishop of Coutances. He had land for five ploughs and the men who worked them included seven slaves.The village of Weston had yet to spring up among the sand dunes, to develop from the Robinson Crusoe-like shacks made by beachcombers from timber washed up on the sands.From the thirteenth century, when the village church was built, the ecclesiastical bosses took a hand in the government of the district. There was a time when a great part of this district was ruled by the Prior of Woodspring Priory.Benefactors gave the Priory much of their land in the district and the charge of Weston's parish church was vested in the Priory from 1342 until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the time of Henry VIII. Woodspring also held Worle and Kewstoke churches,It is to Weston parish church records we have to look for the earliest gleanings about action taken for good government, the preservation of law and order, and the earliest welfare work.Unfortunately Weston's parish registers date back only to 1668, and are not so rich in detail as those of many other places. The earliest rate list covered forty-eight ratepayers, and the total raised was £3 8s.In 1824 the churchwardens resolved "the churchyard be made level, and a roundhouse, stocks, whipping post, and a pound erected in a field called 'The Worthy,' the land being given by J. H. S. Pigott for that purpose."The spot where they stood was at the foot of Bristol Road just above Grove Park Garage.In an earlier chapter of Weston's story I told how in 1810 those first local builder speculators, William Cox of Brockley and Richard Parsley, having made land purchases from the Smyth-Pigotts, applied for and were granted an Act of Parliament authorising the enclosure of all wastelands in the parish.A Commissioner was appointed to give effect to the Act, and he set about laying down the first public roads and bridlepaths. There was no local authority to whom he could turn and, as was customary, he raised his expenses by selling land, in this instance Sea Front sites.The sand dunes were levelled and Weston gained something in the nature of a promenade, which it was pleased to call The Strand.It has got a start as a resort, and by the 1840s it was developing so swiftly that it obviously needed more in the way of local government than was provided by churchwardens, overseers of the poor, and magistrates.In 1842 a Local Act was obtained for "Paving, lighting, watching, cleansing, and otherwise improving the Town of Weston-super-Mare in the County of Somerset and for establishing a Market therein."Among the powers provided in the Act was the appointment of eighteen Commissioners "for the government of the township," but their authority extended to only about half the town, as some landowners objected to the levying of town rates when they amounted to 9d. in the pound.The Town Commissioners held their first meeting on the 7th May, 1842 at the Gas Committee Room, and appointed Mr F. Hutchinson Synge as chairman and Mr Henry Davies as Clerk.It is of interest to recall the names of the first eighteen elected representatives of Weston-super-Mare. They were William Cox, Matthew Day, Francis Ker Fox, MD, James Gordon, John Gregory, Thomas Harrill, Charles William Hicks, William Hurst, Joseph James, John Palmer, Richard Parsley, Horatio Francis Parsley, John Reeve, Samuel Serle, Major Thomas Smith, John Sperrin, Francis Hutchinson Synge and Joseph Whereat.Several of these people played a big part in the development of early Weston. There were the builders William Cox and the Parsleys, while Joseph Whereat was a printer, publisher, bookbinder, engraver and stationer whose premises which combined shop, stamp office, and public library and reading room, occupied "Huntleys" corner at the top of Regent Street. He also became the first proprietor of the Weston Gazette, the Mercury's rival for so many years.Francis Hutchinson Synge, the first chairman of Weston's initial local authority, appears to have been a very capable, likeable and generous individual. His residence was now vanished Weston Lodge, which stood at the bottom of Bristol Road near the junction with High Street and according to an old guide book "being surrounded by high walls, is almost hidden from view."At first the Commissioners had no meeting place of their own. They continued to meet in the directors' room at the old Gas Works, which then stood near the Oxford Street junction of the High Street extension, which used to be Union Street and at one time Gas Street.There is also a mention that at one time they met at the old Plough Hotel, which stood on the west side of High Street not far from today's Burton's. There were objections that holding meetings on licensed premises was in keeping with the dignity of the Commissioners.Down a lane beside the Plough hotel was an old chapel vacated by the Wesleyans when they moved into a new building at the corner of St. James Street. In 1848 this was bought by Mr Synge, who granted the Commissioners the use of it free of charge.This was Weston's first Town Hall, and in the resort's early days its only place of entertainment. It held about 200 people, and in addition to the Commissioners' meetings the County Court, concerts and penny readings were held there.And what did Weston think of its first local governing body? We have a tribute to it in Beedle's Handbook of Weston-super-Mare, although it is perhaps a little suspect because Mr Beedle was himself at one time a member. He wrote:"This town is governed by 18 Commissioners, all of whom are gentlemen of local standing and business habits. A member of the Board serves for three years, and is then eligible for re-election; and, judging from what has been done for the town, they have sought only to advance the true interests of the ratepayers, and promote the prosperity of the town."For a time, Weston's Town Commissioners were content to have the free use of Mr Synge's property, but was not long before the Town Commissioners were dissatisfied, and one of the first major rows was over the building of a new Town Hall. A local speculator, Mr Henry Davies, offered to present it with one, but there were councillors who thought his motives were not disinterested.The site, where the Town Hall now stands, was somewhat on the outskirts of Weston in those days. Since Mr Davies was responsible for building developments in the Clarence Park area, there were those who thought he was making the gift to serve his own ends by placing the civic centre near his area of development. In the end the dispute was settled by a generous benefactor to Weston, Archdeacon Henry Law, a former Rector, himself presenting the Town Hall to the town. It was opened in 1858.An extension scheme followed in 1897, which included the portico at the main entrance and the construction over it of a new Council Chamber wainscotted with solid polished walnut. This chamber was used for Council meetings until 1929 when the present one came into being.On the occasion of the 1897 extension Cllr W H Beedle, the chairman of the Town Hall Committee gave an expensive commemorative luncheon at which he and other speakers expressed pious hope that everything in the new chamber "would be conducted in a friendly and gentlemanly manner."Alas, the luncheon over and business begun, there were heated discussions, acrimonious arguments and disorderly scenes over the question of adopting an electric lighting system for the town, and the meeting broke up without a decision being reached.As the Mercury's 'Rambler' of those days put it: "It was to have been a red letter day for Weston, and the wonder was that it was not redder than it proved to be."* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on February 16, 1968

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