There were several reforms made by Parliament between the Reform Act of 1832 and the 1894 Local Government Act, all principally seeking the improvement and extension of provisions in health, education and relief of the poor as well as seeking economies of funding. An extension of suffrage was central to much of this reform.

The Local Government Act of 1888 had established a system of elected local government in England based largely on the existing counties. The counties themselves had undergone some boundary changes in the preceding 50 years, mainly to remove enclaves and exclaves such as the one that placed a small part of Wiltshire in the Binfield area. 

By the Local Government Act of 1894 each County Council eventually came to be served by District Councils (either Urban or Rural) which linked with Parish Councils. So, in 1894 secular District and Parish Councils were created, between them administering the work previously and variously undertaken by Vestry committees, Parish Church Councils, Boards of Guardians and Sanitary Authorities, thus codifying an evolving system that seems to have lasted the test of Victorian time.  

The size of each council was determined by the population it served. In 1894 just under 2000 people lived in the Binfield parish entitling it to nine councillors, who were elected annually, given statutory responsibilities and the duty to hold an annual meeting. Binfield was also allotted two elected places on Easthampstead Rural District Council. There were thus election procedures at all three levels with a ballot if there were more nominations than places or if requested by an elector. A general account of the nomination process within Berkshire read:

The meetings were for the most part well attended, but all were conducted in a business-like manner and the utmost good temper prevailed. People of all classes were nominated squires and parson, landlords and tenants, retired middle-class residents, publicans, gardeners, coachmen, tradesmen, artisans and labourers, and in many parishes the working class came off with flying colours. Very few of the clergy, comparatively speaking, were nominated, and several of those who were did not secure the confidence of the meeting. For instance, Canon Slatter failed at Whitchurch, the Rectors of Tilehurst, Burghfield and Finchampstead were not selected, and the Vicars of Hurst, Twyford and Bray did not secure sufficient votes to put them on the Council. At Bradfield, the Rector was rejected and the Primitive Methodist minister accepted, and the curate-in-charge of Farley hill was preferred to the Vicar of Swallowfield. The Rev. R. Finch refrained from testing the feeling of his flock at Pangbourne, and in some other parishes where friction between the priest and a portion of his parishioners exists the parson has discreetly kept aloof from the meeting. Several “Squires” were deposed, and another feature of the election was the very insignificant support the Lord of the Manor of Bradfield obtained.

Reading Observer Saturday December 8th 1894 

The Binfield nominations meeting was reported as follows:

BINFIELD (9). A large meeting of electors took place in the Schoolroom. Thirteen nomination papers were handed to the Chairman (Mr. J. Macnabb), and on the show of hands the result was as follows :―J. Thorpe 106 votes, J. Jones 104, W. Minchin 101, J. Barker 94, H. North 93, E. Savory 87, H. Howell 84, G. Sly 80, G. Liddell 60, C. Rance 27, F. Baker 21, H. Jones 11 and J. Prouton 9.―There being more candidates than the required number, the Chairman stated that ten minutes would be allowed for any member nominated to consider whether he demanded a poll or not.—A poll was demanded by Mr. Felix Baker. ―Mr. WALKER, a candidate for the District Council, heckled the various candidates on several points relating to the presence of members of the Press at the Council meetings, the hour of such meetings, the allotment question and recreation grounds.―The RECTOR (Canon Savory) thanked those present for their orderly behaviour and conduct during the meeting, stating that the two largely attended meetings that had been held respecting this momentous question augured well the future management of the Parish.

Reading Observer Saturday December 8th 1894 

This County-wide report of the nomination meetings is interestingly revealing. From it, we can deduce the prevailing issues and concerns relating to this new way of selecting councillors and of tasking the successful candidates.

As with nearly all Parliamentary Acts, the 1894 drafting sets out to be comprehensive. Inevitably, companion guides became available. An explanation of the proposed election process in Ryde’s Local Government Act, 1894. A Manual, states: 

The councillors will be elected every year at a parish meeting, or by a poll of the “parochial electors” which will be taken by ballot; and each “parochial elector” may give one vote and no more for each of any number of persons not exceeding the number to be elected. The first elections will be held in November, 1894; but in 1896 and subsequent years, the parish councillors will come into office on April 15, and will elect their chairman at their first meeting.”

Manuals explain a process involved, the local Press, as indicated above, is usually more interested in personalities.

These reports of the nomination meetings clearly reveal the live issues. Would the process be peaceable? Would the results be accepted? Would the introduction of the possibility of secret ballots to replace the nominations method affect the selection of candidates? Irrespective of the two differing methods of selection, would the electorate return the establishment’s “old gang” of squires, vicars and local professionals? The nomination meetings offered hints about the nature of these outcomes. Parish priests, by and large, had seemed cautious about seeking nomination, discreetly “keeping aloof” from the process and many pastors who had decided to “test the feeling of [their] flocks” had been rejected. Furthermore, at Bradfield and Farley Hill, for example, the old, established order had been quite up-ended. Bradfield had rejected its “Squire”. So had other constituencies.

There is some speculation about the kind of candidate who might eventually succeed since “people of all classes [had been] nominated― squires and parsons, landlords and tenants, retired middle-class residents, publicans, gardeners, coachmen, tradesmen, artisans and labourers….” The nominations had already shown that “in many parishes the working class came off with flying colours”.

In Binfield, Mr Felix Baker demanded a ballot, and when the election followed on December 17th, Binfield did not buck the trend. The table below shows that apart from its well-founded faith in its long-standing Rector, Canon Savory, the Binfield electorate chose to ignore the “gentry”, electing instead “gardeners, coachmen, tradesmen, artisans and labourers” – nine middle-aged married men, at least six of whom had spent their working lives in Binfield or an adjacent parish. 

Name/Nomination score

Occupation

Birth

place

Age

Married

Votes

Diff

John Jones     106

Butcher/Dairyman/Farmer

Hurst

47

Yes

141*

+35

John Barker     91

Blacksmith

Binfield

37

Yes

141*

+50

William Minchin     101

Shopkeeper, Merchant

Binfield

41

Yes

139*

+28

Joseph Thorpe     106

Farmer

Swallowfield

51

Yes

135*

+29

Henry L. North     93

Joiner

Wokingham

35

Yes

124*

+31

Edmund Savory     87

Rector

Melksham

68

Yes

111*

+24

Henry Howell     81

Head Gardener

Minstead

37

Yes

103*

+22

George Sly     80

Farmer

Wellington

35

Yes

103*

+23

Charles Rance     27

Plasterer [Labourer]

Binfield

47

Yes

93*

+66

Felix Baker     21**

Professor of Music

Kensington

36

Yes

88

+67

Gerald Liddell    80** 

Gentleman

Co. Durham

 

Yes

83

+3

Hardman Jones   11**

Gentleman

Leamington

54

Yes

43

+32

J. Prouton     9**

Coach Builder

Wooton

31

Yes

35

+26

**  unsuccessful nominee

       

elected

 

 

All of the nominations were found valid. The Ryde manual explains the rules:

The parish councillors must either be parochial electors of the parish, or persons who have, during the whole of the twelve months preceding the election, resided in the parish or within three miles thereof; and the county council may fix the number of the parish councillors to not less than five, nor more than fifteen. …….. Women, whether married or not, are not disqualified.

 

The gap between Liddell’s 80 votes and Rance’s 27 produced a decisive choice of the top nine nominees at the nominations meeting reached by a “show of hands”. Felix Baker, an unsuccessful candidate at the nominations meeting, exerted his right to demand the secret ballot. He finished only five votes short of Charles Rance, a plasterer, who had more than tripled his support at the nominations meeting, at the same time ousting Gerald Liddell, a Gentleman, who “enjoyed” an increase of only three votes in a secret ballot. So anonymous voting might seem to enhance lower class influence.   

And, as with modern elections, there were always interested activists. The Reading Mercury of Saturday December 22nd 1894, reported: 

As the Elections were by Ballot but little excitement was manifested and the proceedings passed off quietly. The results were not known until late at night, in some instances until past midnight; but even at that late hour those most interested in the elections assembled at the various places appointed for the declaration of the Poll awaited with much interest the result.

Four years later in April 1899, the Chairman’s report of Binfield Council’s work shows that his councillors had approached their work seriously. The Reading Observer reported on Saturday April 29th 1899:

ANNUAL PARISH COUNCIL MEETING.―A long agenda paper was supplied to the members of the Council for April 21st. necessitating a long sitting.―The Clerk presented the Overseers’ balance sheet (audited), and also the audited accounts of the Parish Council for the past year, the latter showing a balance of £3 16s. 2d.―The Assistant Overseer (Mr. W. B. Webster) stated that for the next 12 months the rate would be 2d. less.―Mr. J.  Jones (Chairman) addressed the meeting on the work of the past year. He said he was sure that all would be pleased to hear the very favourable account he was about to give of the Council’s work during the past year. From a financial point of view they had done the greatest amount of work at a minimum of cost. Not a penny had been charged to the rates during the last twelve months: in fact, during the last four years the cost of the Parish Council to the ratepayers had been at the rate of two-thirds of a farthing in the £ on each rate made. That, he thought, would upset the theory prevalent in the Parish―that the Council increased the rates. The charities, under the management of the Council’s trustees, had in all cases given entire satisfaction, both to the Council and to the recipients. The allotments had this last year been in a small way an aid to the ratepayers, as a profit of 12s. 10d. had been placed to the credit of the rates. The Council had repaired several footpaths, which, he was sure, had given great satisfaction to the users of the same, and the public, too. 

They had been in communication with the District Council upon several sanitary issues, and had in each case brought the same to a satisfactory termination. The drought of last summer was alleviated as much as possible by the kind act of the Vice-Chairman (Mr. W. Minchin), who sent several supplies of pure water to the north end of the parish. 

It was usual to make some mention of the attendance of the members of the Council. He did not think anyone could find fault with the Binfield Parish Council in this respect as all the members had put in very good attendances. They must bear in mind that all the members. were business men. and so were not in a position to be present at every meeting. The number of meetings had been ten, and the attendances of each member as follows: Mr. J. Jones ten. Mr. W. Minchin nine. Messrs. Jarvis, Green and North eight. Messrs. Sly and King seven, Mr J. Thorp six, and Mr. J. West four. ―Mr. W. Minchin followed with a report of the various charities distributed by the Council.―For the present year Mr. J. Jones and Mr. W. Minchin were elected chairman and vice-chairman respectively: overseers, Messrs.  B. J. Green and W. Minchin: trustees to charities (Bowes’ and Batson’s, Stevenson’s, Howe’s, Kitcher and Randall’s, Winch’s), Messrs. W. Minchin and J. Jones: Birch’s charity, Messrs. G. B. Sly and J. Thorpe. 

The Finance Committee in composed of Messrs. Jones, Minchin and Sly: the Footpaths’ Committee of Messrs. Sly. Jones and Minchin: and the allotment managers elected were Messrs. Green, North, Sly and Jones.―It was agreed that, owing to the unsatisfactory state of one allotment, the owner should not be allowed to continue his holding, but should have the option of taking a smaller plot: and that the claims made by the allotment holders for damages sustained recently by followers of Mr. Garth’s hounds “be referred to the Garth Hunt for settlement.”―With reference to standing orders, the five fixed meetings of the Council were: 1899. June 23rd, Oct. 3rd, Dec. 15th; 1900, Jan. 16th, and March 30th.―There were four applications, for the apprentice money. (Wandsford’s charity, the successful candidate being John Jones, son of the late Mr. David Jones.―The Clerk was instructed to make out on behalf of the Council a contribution order, to be drawn on the Overseers for £20, to carry on the Council’s work.

Surprisingly the above report shows that the work and approach of the 19th century Binfield Council was similar to much that it deals with now. A sub-committee structure quickly became the norm: sub-committees for the Allotments, Footpaths and Finance were set up and the practice has endured. So too has the practice of reporting to the District Council to alert, even to badger, on some issues.

But there are differences. An earlier Annual Meeting had heard of two prosecutions of cyclists riding on a pathway – nowadays Binfield cyclists are encouraged to share some pavements with pedestrians. Nowadays, too, it would be rare to have a full Council meeting without some reference to housing development within the village whereas in the 1890s apart from seeking perpetually to maintain adequate sanitary arrangements – sewage-borne disease was still feared – housing was rarely a topic.

The explanation for the housing discrepancy is that there was little demand for new houses. During a period of nearly 20 years, it seems that there had been only four dwellings erected in Binfield.  In 1917 the Parish Council received a request from central government to assess its contribution to the problem of a post-war shortage of adequate housing for the demobilised forces. The Council’s response reveals a determination to limit further development.The Reading Observer relayed this report on Saturday October 27th 1917:

BINFIELD PARISH COUNCIL. A specially convened meeting of the Parish Council was held on Monday, in response to a letter from the District Council to consider the housing problem in the village. Mr. J. Jones, the Chairman, in his opening remarks stated that any scheme approved would be supported by grants from the Imperial Exchequer. Mr. W. Minchin explained that a sub-committee composed of one member from each parish would be formed to consider the replies received, and that the Rev. R. Bevan was elected to represent Binfield. Each matter was dealt with separately, and fully discussed before formulating the necessary reply to the effect that there was a slight decrease in the population of the parish during the war, and as far as it was possible to estimate, this would continue after the war. Some ten to fifteen houses were at present vacant and fit for habitation. No new houses in all probability would be required on the cessation of war. The Council were satisfied that the employers of labour here would erect any necessary houses for their employees. No houses reasonably unfit existed that would necessitate demolition, so far as the Council were aware.  There would be an adequacy of housing in the village for some time to come.

Of course, the assurance that “each matter was dealt with separately” indicates that there had been a full discussion of the document that the Rev. Bevan would take to the District Council’s sub-committee. But the “necessary reply” reveals confidence that, for Binfield, masterly inaction would suffice. The Council could report that there were between ten and fifteen currently unoccupied but habitable houses in the Parish. So taken with a perceived “slight decrease in [the village] population …. no new houses in all probability would be required on the cessation of war.” And even if there was a demand, “the employers of labour here would erect any necessary houses for their employees.”  Different nowadays, when we are told in Housing in the South East First Report of Session 2009-10 by the House of Commons South East Regional Committee, “The setting of average annual targets for future house building has been a contentious [authors emphasis] issue in successive regional plans for the South East Region.”  

What confidence in that phrase, “for some time to come”! It will be interesting to examine the 1921 census when it becomes available.

This work has been made possible through access to the British Newspaper Archive, my acknowledgment and thanks.

Berkshire Family History Society

Berkshire Family History Society