After the passing of the 1832 Reform Act the next logical step in the reform of the constitution was that of the Municipal Corporations. There were about 250 of these towns, each of which at some time in the past had received a Royal Charter to have its own council or corporation. There were great variations in how the corporations were chosen and how they functioned but in over 180 of them, only the members of the Corporation were allowed to vote. Normally they re-elected themselves or brought friends and relatives onto the council. The Commission found generally that power was held by a small number of people because so few townsfolk could vote. They also found evidence of corruption with the council members becoming rich at the expense of the town's inhabitants.
Following the same procedures that had been adopted for the investigation of the Poor Laws, in July 1833 the Whig government set up a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the working of local councils. The Commission's secretary was Joseph Parkes, a radical lawyer. 285 towns were investigated, most of which were found to be unsatisfactory. As a result of the Commission's findings, a Bill was drawn up and brought to the House of Commons by Lord John Russell in June 1835.
The Bill went through the House of Commons without too much difficulty but the House of Lords proved more difficult. Most of the closed corporations were controlled by Tories and the Tory peers claimed that the Bill was an attack on privileges and property. They had used the same reasons to oppose the abolition of rotten boroughs during the 1832 Reform Act campaign. The Lords made some amendments to the Bill but, thanks to the efforts of the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, the Tory Lords were restrained from throwing out the Bill altogether. The legislation went onto the Statute Book in September 1835.
Extracts from the Municipal Corporations Act
Every Male Person of full Age who on the last Day of August in any Year shall have occupied any House, Warehouse, Countinghouse, or Shop within any Borough during that Year and the whole of each of the Two preceding Years, and also during the Time of such Occupation shall have been an Inhabitant Householder within the said Borough, or within Seven Miles of the said Borough, shall, if duly enrolled in that Year according to the Provisions hereinafter contained, be a Burgess of such Borough and Member of the Body Corporate of the Mayor, Aldermen, and Burgesses of such Borough: Provided always, that no such Person shall be so enrolled in any Year, unless he shall have been rated in respect of such Premises so occupied by him within the Borough to all Rates made for the Relief of the Poor of the Parish wherein such Premises are situated during the Time of his Occupation as aforesaid, and unless he shall have paid on or before the last Day of August as aforesaid all such Rates, including therein all Borough Rates, if any, directed to be paid under the Provisions of this Act, as shall have become payable by him in respect of the said Premises, except such as shall become payable within Six Calendar Months next before the said last Day of August: Provided also, that the Premises in respect of the Occupation of which any Person shall have been so rated need not be the same Premises or in the same Parish, but may be different Premises in the same Parish or in Different Parishes: Provided also, that no Person being an Alien shall be so enrolled in any Year and that no Person shall be so enrolled in any Year who within Twelve Calendar Months next before the said last Day of August shall have received Parochial Relief or other Alms, or any Pension or charitable Allowance from any Fund intrusted to the charitable Trustees of such Borough herein after mentioned: Provided that in every Case provided in this Act the Distance of Seven Miles shall be computed by the nearest public Road or Way by Land or Water . . .
That notwithstanding any Custom or Bye Law, every Person in any Borough may keep any Shop for the Sale of all lawful Wares and Merchandizes by Wholesale or Retail, and use every lawful Trade, occupation, Mystery, and Handicraft, for Hire, Gain, Sale or otherwise, within any Borough . . .
That in every Borough shall be elected, One fit Person, who shall be and be called 'The Mayor' of such Borough; and a certain Number of fit Persons, who shall be and be called 'Aldermen' of such Borough; and a certain Number of other fit Persons, who shall be and be called 'The Councillors' of such Borough; and such Mayor, Aldermen, and Councillors for the Time being shall be and be called 'The Council' of such Borough; and the Number of Persons so to be elected Aldermen shall be One Third of the Number of Persons so to be elected Councillors; in every Third succeeding Year, the Council of every Borough shall elect from the Councillors, or from the Persons qualified to be Councillors, the Aldermen of such Borough, or so many as shall be needed to supply the Places of those who shall then go out of Office, and in every Third succeeding Year, One Half of the Number appointed as aforesaid to be the Whole Number of the Aldermen of every Borough shall go out of Office; and the Councillors immediately after the first Election of Aldermen shall appoint who shall be the Aldermen who shall go out of Office
That in every succeeding year, One Third Part of the Number of the Councillors of every Borough shall go out of Office . .
And whereas it may be expedient that the Powers now vested in the Trustees appointed under sundry Acts of Parliament for paving, lighting, cleansing watching, regulating, supplying with Water, and improving certain Boroughs, or certain Parts thereof, should be transferred to and vested in the Councils of such Boroughs respectively;
That the Council to be elected for any Borough shall appoint a sufficient Number of their own Body, who, together with the Mayor of the Borough for the Time being, shall be and be called the Watch Committee for such Borough; and all the Powers herein after given to such Committee may be executed by the Majority of those who shall be present at any Meeting of such Committee, the whole Number present at such Meeting being not less than Three; and such Watch Committee shall appoint a sufficient Number of fit Men, who shall be sworn in before some justice of the Peace having jurisdiction within the Borough to act as Constables for preserving the Peace by Day and by Night, and preventing Robberies and other Felonies, and apprehending offenders against the Peace; and the Men so sworn shall not only within such Borough, but also within the County in which such Borough or Part thereof shall be situated, and also within every County being within Seven Miles of any Part of such Borough, and also within all Liberties in any such County, have all such Powers and Privileges, and be liable to all such Duties and Responsibilities, as any Constable duly appointed now has or hereinafter may have within his Constablewick by virtue of the Common Law of this Realm, or of any Statutes made or to be made, and shall obey all such lawful Commands as they may from Time to Time receive from any of the justices of the Peace having jurisdiction within such Borough, or within any County in which they shall be called on to act as Constables, for conducting themselves in the Execution of their Office . .
That it shall be lawful for the Council of any Borough to make such Bye Laws as to them shall seem meet for the good Rule and Government of the Borough, and for Prevention and Suppression of all such Nuisances as are not already punishable in a summary Manner by virtue of any Act in force throughout such Borough, and to appoint by such Bye Laws such Fines as they shall deem necessary for the Prevention and Suppression of such Offences; provided that no Fine so to be appointed shall exceed the Sum of Five Pounds, and that no such Bye Law shall be made unless at least Two Thirds of the whole Number of the Council shall be present; provided that no such Bye Law shall be of any Force until the Expiration of Forty Days after the same or a Copy thereof shall have been sent to One of His Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State, and shall have been affixed on the outer Door of the Town Hall or in some other public Place within such Borough . .
Last modified 9 July 2002