To commemorate 170 years since Warrington gaining borough status, the town’s Borough Charter is now on display here at the Museum. This is a rare chance to see a hugely important document from the town’s history.
As the images in this blog entry will show, the charter is not only worth seeing for its importance as a grant of rights to us as citizens, it is also worth seeing as a work of art in its own right, with beautifully illustrated borders, fine calligraphy, and a detailed and substantial wax seal.
It is not easy to explain all the ins and outs of what a town charter means, of how it changed Warrington’s society in a brief blog like this, but I will give a few facts to help explain it.
Before the creation of the Borough Council the day-to-day running of the town was left to the Lord of the Manor and his steward and was administered through the manorial court. By the early 19th Century the rapid growth of the town and its increasing industrialisation and crowded living conditions made it necessary to have a more organised approach to things such as policing, sewerage, and housing. With this in mind, in 1813 a committee of Police Commissioners was set up. Whilst called “police commissioners”, these men actually organised most of what a modern day council would arrange and raised rates to fund their work.
Whilst a step forward from all power resting with the Lord of the Manor, the new commissioners were still limited to the wealthy and they were still not elected. Any man who had an estate worth over £1000 or property worth £50 a year could be a Commissioner.
The names of the commissioners will be familiar to you as constituting the great and good of the town, names such as Blackburne (the old lord of the Manor), Legh, Lilford, Lyon, Patten, Rylands, Gaskell, and Crosfield.
By the 1840’s many new boroughs had been created across the country, and the idea was raised that Warrington too should be incorporated. Supporters stated that it would be a matter of civic pride leading Warrington finally into the modern age, and that it would create elected and thus accountable governance of the town. Opponents stated that setting up a council would create a greater cost on rate payers and encourage greater corruption as paid officials would be likely to work for their own gain rather than the good of the town.
Crowded public meetings were held at which ferocious debate took place, but ultimately it was for the Police Commissioners to decide whether to relinquish their power in favour of a new council or not. In January of 1846 they voted on the issue, 58 in favour, 34 against.
Now, the eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that our Borough Charter is dated 1847, not 1846, this is because a month later opponents to the idea girded more support and a second vote was held, this time 142 votes for and 83 against. The argument continued throughout the year, but finally an agreement was come to and on 3rd April 1847 Queen Victoria officially issued a Royal Charter granting Warrington Borough status.
The Royal Charter of Incorporation allowed for the appointment of one Mayor, nine Aldermen, and 27 Councillors. The town was to be made into 5 wards, the North West, North East, South West, South East and Latchford. Each ward was to have six councillors except for Latchford, which had only three. Probably the most important thing in the whole charter to us today is that these councillors had to be elected by burgesses of the town.
A glance at the lists of Warrington’s first councillors shows that the vast majority were the same men as had been lead Commissioners under the old system, but at least the process of voting was now established.
A last thing to bear in mind is just how few people had the right to vote in 1847. Following the Great Reform Act of 1832 the vote was expanded so that about 5.8% of people in the UK had the vote in National elections. The percentage of Warrington people who were made burgesses (allowed by the new charter to vote in local elections) was similar.
With only the wealthiest 5% of Warrington’s citizens having the vote (and this 5% being made up entirely of men), the elections were at this point hardly democratic by modern standards, but they were an enormous step forward, and their impact on the shape of the town’s future was immense. For the first time people had a say in how their town was run and how their rates were spent, they had a police force and local court that was answerable to the public and not to a tiny number of wealthy citizens. The charter enshrined those rights in law for the Warringtonians of 1847 and for their descendants today.
Now that we have looked at just what the charter meant and why it is so important to us as Warringtonians, we can look at the artistry of the item.
To the top of the charter we have the royal coat of arms supported by the lion and unicorn, the lion representing England and the Unicorn Scotland. The two were brought together by the accession of King James I of England and VII of Scotland, who of course could claim symbols from both royal families.
Ancient tales told of a mythological fight between the lion and the unicorn, and with the often strained relationship between England and Scotland people began to refer to these symbols as fighting over the crown, rather than guarding it.
In mythology the unicorn is portrayed as wild and untameable, and this drawing certainly shows that, with its staring eyes and bared teeth. On the other hand the lion is meant to be powerful and ferocious, but the lion here looks rather like a stuffed toy with his curly hair and fluffy whiskers.
Either side of the arms we have Justice and Britannia, Justice with her standard symbols of the scales and blindfold and Britannia with her spear and shield (incidentally the spear has now been replaced by a trident in most depictions, to echo the Nation’s maritime prowess. In the 1840s the trident was not used, but if you look behind Britannia you will see a tall ship and at her feet a horn of plenty, showing between them the wealth that Britain’s naval power has brought).
Throughout the decorative border of the charter you can see various symbols of Britain, oak leaves, shamrocks, thistles, leeks, and roses, along with various horns of plenty, symbolising the productivity and wealth of the nation.
Finally, and most importantly to any good Victorian, we have the likeness of Queen Victoria herself in the top corner. She is shown Seated in a throne bearing the royal orb and sceptre and wearing a crown, just in case there is any confusion over who she is. Whilst we are uused to seeing Queen Victoria later in life, this image is a reminder that at the time of Warrington’s incorporation her reign was still relatively new and she was still a young monarch. Britain was a dynamic and rapidly changing country witnessing progresses in every field of life. Warrington was embracing this brave new world by setting up a council and finally dealing with some of the myriad of problems plaguing the town, problems like an almost non-existent sewerage system, no running water, crowded slums, little policing or fire service, and no street lighting to name but a few.
I couldn’t sign off this blog entry without one last note, it is worth coming to see the Borough Charter if for no other reason than to see the ferocious lion, guardian of Britain, dancing a little jig and smiling a gummy, toothless smile. He seems to have won his fight with the unicorn, but still looks a little bit less than ferocious. I don’t know whether this lion would make it into our predators exhibition on at the museum at the moment.