Democracy in Barwick 1839 - 41 Back to the Main Historical Society page
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Democracy in Barwick 1839 - 41

Barwicker No27
September 1992

In the 16th. century and earlier, the right to vote in parliamentary elections was restricted to a very small proportion of the (male) inhabitants of Britain. It was not until a series of reform acts had been passed during the 19th. and 20th. centuries that universal adult suffrage became the basis of our parliamentary democracy. But for centuries before this, local democracy flourished as inhabitants of a parish or township came together to elect officials and to discuss and make decisions, sometimes involving voting, about many aspects of local affairs. Such gatherings, later called vestry meetings, have occurred, according to some authorities, since the 14th. century.

Very little information is available about the Barwick meetings before the 18th. century. At Sheepscar there are four books from the late 16th. and early 19th. century containing the accounts of the Barwick overseers of the poor, constables, churchwardens and surveyers of the highways. The accounts were inspected and approved at the vestry and a rate was levied on the occupiers of land and property to cover the expenses incurred and payments made by these officials. In addition, memoranda concerning anything of , unusual importance were included in the books, but there was no regular recording of the activities of the vestry.

In 1818, an important act of parliament laid down precise rules for the conduct of vestry meetings. It took away the votes of people who had not paid rates and introduced the principle of plural voting. The minutes of the meetings had to be recorded in a book reserved expressly for that purpose. Five of the books for the Barwick township are preserved at the Leeds District Archives at Sheepscar, covering the period 1824-1910.

Many of these meetings were routine and decisions were approved 'on the nod', but from time to time more controversial issues arose and voting was necessary to settle them. One such question was considered in 1839, which illustrates the procedures used at the meetings and the methods of voting that appear strange to modern eyes. It involved, almost inevitably, the rates. The minutes record that the following notice was displayed on the church door: 'At a meeting called by Public notice in the Vestry on Wednesday, 23 January at 2 o'clock to take the opinion of the ratepayers which proceedings is to be acted upon to the general dissatisfaction of the Late valuation.' Then follow the names of the 40 ratepayers who were present at the meeting; a large gathering, indicating that there was something of unusual interest under discussion.

The minutes continue: 'Many of the above being dissatisfied at the valuation and bringing forward many Proofs express themselves that they wish a new valuation to be taken by a proper valuer to be chosen by a Vestry . . '.

The meeting decided to appoint a small committee 'to wait upon the magistrates and explain the above grievances'. Another meeting was called on 19 February, 'when the ratepayers are particularly requested to attend to nominate such Person or persons as may be agreed upon by the above named Vestry to value the Township of Barwick-in-Elmet.' Some propositions were then carried on a simple show of hands.

'That there be a general valuation of Barwick-in-Elmet.' Carried by a majority of 19 to 3 hands'.

'That a general Survey of this Township take place. Carried by a majority of 14 to 6 hands.'

'That there be an advertisement in the public papers for a competent person to undertake the survey and plan of the township with tenders for the same to be sent to the Overseers of Barwick-in-Elmet betwixt (now) and the 23 Harch. Carried by a majority.'

Another meeting was called on 25 March to appoint overseers and surveyors and a committee to select a valuer. The committee was appointed and it was 'Agreed that the Parish Rates (till the Survey and valuation be completed) be collected by the Old Valuation. Majority 16. Minority 5 hands.'

The plan to have a new valuation suffered a set-back when opponents of the scheme called a vestry meeting on 25 May, 1839 to take into consideration the 'lllegalities' of former notices of meetings concerning the new valuation. Ho minutes appear so it is likely that the meeting did not occur, posssibly because of the controversial language in which the notice was couched. During the next month a more soberly-worded notice appeared calling a vestry meeting to 'look into' the notices and the meetings concerning the valuation.

At the meeting a proposal was put to enable the resolutions, appointments and agreements passed at the meetings of 25 March and 27 February 1839 to be confirmed, enabling the new valuation to proceed. However, the opponents of the new valuation put down an amendment, calling for the question to be left for a further year as they alleged that a majority of the ratepayers were opposed to it.

A complicated system of plural voting based on rateable value of the property occupied was then carried out.

Votes for ResolutionVotes for Amendment
Rate(£)No.of votes
Rate (£)
No.of votes
George Cooper 169 5 John Crosland 149 4
William White 93 2 John Brogden 78 2
Matthew Varley 60 1 Thomas Stoner 42 1
Edward Furniss 161 5 William Thompson 85 2
Richard Batty 54 1 George Lumb 182 6
John Furniss 16 1 John Towler 10 1
John Fassniry(?) 73 1 John WaIton 22 1
John Clapham 151 5 Edward Smith 62 1
John Batty 26 1 William Foules 184 6
Thomas Legat 224 6 John Connel 56 1
William Shippen 54 1 Thos. Whitehead 55 1
William Robinson 115 3 Richard Perkin 102 3
James Lumb 10 1 Henry Shippen 9 1
Richard Newby 29 1 Thos. HardcastIe 149 4
Thomas Knapton 61 1 James Perkin 3 1
Joshua Lumb 98 2 Milnes B.Pother 76 2
Leonard Sampson 266 6 Benjamin Dawson 45 1
Thomas Crosland 139 4 Benj. Rawlinson 45 1
James Jackson 147 4
Geo. Pickersgill 26 1
Richard Hewitt 4 1
John Clemishaw 17 1
Joshua Hartley 90 2
William Connell 20 1
Thomas Eastwood 43 1
William Green 116 3
Wm. Pickersgill 2 1
William Slaytor 24 1
Matthew Abbott 2 1
Total 47 Total 61

The number of votes allowed by each ratepayer was laid down by the act and is clearly shown to be one vote for up to £75 of rateable property and an additional vote for every £25 up to a maximum of six. The proposal to have a new valuation was defeated by a majority 'in number and value'.

However, George Lane Fox of Bramham Park, objected to the votes of seven ratepayers who were not present in vestry when the resolution and amendment were put by the Chairman. Mr Lane Fox also objected to the vote of Thomas Eastwood, the paid assistant overseer, whose appointment had been confirmed at one of the meetings in dispute. Hr W White objected to his vote being recorded in the 'Votes for Resolution' list.

Later in the year, George Lane Fox and others made an appeal against their highway rates to the West Riding Quarter Sessions. At a vestry meeting on 11 December 1839, a motion to give the township officers powers to resolve the dispute in whatever way the thought 'necessary and proper' was immediately thrown out by the meeting and, in the centuries-old tradition of saving the rates, they decided that the appeal should not be contested 'in order that the rate may be quashed at the Court's expense'.

The Quarter Sessions at Wakefield on 1 January 1840 confirmed the worst fears of the Barwick ratepayers The justices allowed the appeal of George Lane Fox and ordered that Thomas Davidson of Durham be immediately employed by the surveyors of the highways of Barwick to make a new valuation of property in the township. A new plan was to be drawn, if necessary, and the cost of the survey and valuation and the cost of the appeal, should be paid by the township. The order was delayed until the next Quarter Session presumably in order to give the opportunity for fresh proposals. The poor ratepayers of Barwick accepted the situation and to lessen the blow, on 15 February 1840, they proposed that if Mr Davidson thought a plan was needed, he is 'respectfully recommended to employ Mr Teale of Leeds to make a plan of the same, he having a plan of the Township in his possession which may lead to a great saving of Expense to the Township'.

Finally, at the Quarter Sessions of 5 April 1841, the court ordered the valuation to proceed and a new rate for the highways was to be set. The cost of the valuation and the new rate, no less than £451.18.6, was to be paid to Mr Davidson by the Barwick surveyors. To rub salt into the wound, the justices ordered that a sum of £210.4.0 should be paid from the highway rates to the appellants for costs and charges of the appeal.

How, in this sorry affair, had local democracy fared? After a number of false starts, a properly-called meeting had gone through a complicated voting procedure laid down by parliament and had decided that no new valuation process was needed. However, a wealthy and influential landowner had this decision overturned by legal means which the ratepayers were unwilling to challenge because of the cost. They finished up paying dearly for their decision.


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