Looking century

Emily Davison funeral in Morpeth.
Emily Davison funeral in Morpeth.

IN June, it will be 100 years since Morpeth suffragette Emily Davison was tragically killed in an attempt to halt the King’s horse at Ascot, so you will hear and see a lot more about her and women’s rights in the coming months.

In the preceding century, rights and freedoms changed dramatically and Morpeth went from having a medieval system of local governance to elected councillors. By the 1870s, a large proportion of men were able to vote in local and Parliamentary elections and from 1894, women were able to vote in local elections.

The 19th century was a time of enormous change so we decided to look back to see how the great century of social changes came to Morpeth.

At the start of the 19th century, very few had even the basic freedoms let alone the right to vote. Most working class men and women were illiterate and tied to their employers by laws that favoured the masters.

They couldn’t just leave a job if their tied cottage was a slum or the master broke promises, the law was there to keep them subservient.

When James McCabe became an apprentice printer at the Herald he had to sign typically binding terms of indenture:

“The said Apprentice, his Master faithfully shall serve, his secrets kept, his lawful commands everywhere gladly do, he shall do no damage to his said Master ... he shall not waste the Goods of his said Master nor lend them unlawfully to any, he shall not commit fornication nor contract Matrimony within the said Term (seven years), he shall not play at Cards or Dice Tables or any other unlawful Games whereby his said Master may have any loss with his owned goods ... he shall not haunt Taverns or Playhouses nor absent himself from his said Master’s service day or night unlawfully. But in all things as a faithful Apprentice he shall behave himself towards the said Master ... during the said Term.”

For most people, life was a struggle to survive, with the odd day at the hirings or a drink at the pub being their only enjoyment. Few would have thought it was possible that in their lifetimes so much would change, but change it did.

Local Elections

Until 1835, Morpeth was governed by a system that started in the 13th century when Robert de Merley leased land to burgesses and gave them the collective power to run the town. This was the origin of the governing body that was later called the Corporation.

It was controlled by seven trade guilds who elected freemen and appointed town officers. They had many rights including free education at the Grammar School. Others could send their sons there but only if they paid.

Once established, this system continued as a self-perpetuating closed-shop for over 600 years. The composition and number of voters was controlled by the trades that were important in medieval times such as tanning and weaving.

It has been claimed that the system produced stability, keeping a balance of power between the factions, and that the Guilds guaranteed quality of food and drink by appointing inspectors, ale-tasters, fish and flesh lookers, and bread-weighers. However, an opposing view is that its main aim was self-interest and that it impeded progress to the point of stagnation.

Most notoriously, Morpeth Corporation mismanaged the foundation set up in 1553 that was supposed to finance the Grammar School to the point where it almost went bankrupt.

As the end of the 18th century approached the time was ripe for change. An enquiry (1833) stated that “it seems to be essential that the corporate officers should be more popularly chosen ... that their proceedings should be open and subject to control of public opinion”.

The result was that the government of Earl Grey (Viscount Howick) brought in the Municipal Corporation Act in 1835. The power of the Guilds was gone and a Town Council was elected by ratepayers.

The new council consisted of 12 councillors who duly chose four aldermen and a mayor. Anthony Charlton, the first mayor, was elected with the support of only 170 votes.

An article in the Herald of November 1889 relates memories of the first elections, describing how candidates canvassed voters by plying them with drink in the Black Bull and New Phoenix before dragging them off to Chantry Place to vote. Some voters were even bribed with a week’s pay but later laws brought these shenanigans under control.

Initially, women were not given the right to vote in local elections but the Local Government Act of 1894 gave all women the right to vote and stand for election to district and parish councils as well as school boards and Poor Law Guardians. However, it took until 1939 for the first woman to be appointed to the Town Council and she was also the first Socialist, Mrs Dorothy Robson.

The Parliamentary Vote

Until 1553, Morpethians had no representation in Parliament but then the Borough was given the right to return two members. The right to vote was based on the value of property, so a rich land-owner carried a lot of clout and could even buy up sufficient properties to control the outcome of an election.

Votes could be used to influence others, a local example being Tritlington millwright William Rastrick when he had a dispute with his landlord’s agent in 1772.

Rastrick wrote to his landlord, the Duke of Portland, politely asking for him to intercede but ended with a veiled threat, a reminder that his family had 12 votes that they had previously used to support the Duke’s candidate, Mr Ridley. The implication was clear, help me or you lose my support, and 12 votes could be significant.

By the late 18th century the system of Parliamentary representation was seriously flawed, if only because of changes in the size and importance of towns. Morpeth still had two members but the burgeoning city of Manchester had none.

There were several attempts to change the law, including giving women the vote, but it took a great political struggle for Earl Grey’s government to get the Reform Act finally accepted in 1832. Morpeth lost a seat and the Parliamentary boundary extended and included other towns like Bedlington.

Previously, only about 100 men qualified for the vote but the Act increased the number to about 500, significant but restricted because voters had to occupy homes with an annual value of £10 – a lot of money at the time.

The franchise was extended in 1867 to all male householders and lodgers of more than 12 months residence. The result was an immediate rise to 1,700 and by 1873 it was almost 5,000.

Now we come to the important role of one of the great drivers of change in our region, the coal miners. Over a short period the mining population had boomed and they became the majority of workers in the borough.

The Herald has many reports of them forcing changes in working practices and challenging authority. They often succeeded because, unlike the agricultural workers, they were organised and had charismatic leaders like Thomas Burt, Robert Glassey and Dr James Trotter.

Most miners lived in company houses that were given as part of their pay, the rates being paid by the company, so they considered that they were qualified to vote. However, to be included in the register all claimants had to put their case before an examining magis trate.

Miners in other constituencies applied and were registered but the Morpeth borough miners’ claim was rejected. This was a huge blow because the miners knew that if they could be registered they would be in a position to support their own Parliamentary candidate, Thomas Burt, with a strong chance of success.

The initial rejection of their claim was reported in many regional newspapers and most were supportive but doubtful if the miners could succeed. However, on October 4, 1873 the Magistrate accepted the claims and the number of voters in the Borough stood at 4,916 – 840 of them being residents of Morpeth.

Mr Burt, a Liberal, won the election by a landslide and represented the borough for 44 years, serving as Secretary of the Board of Trade, member of the Privy Council and Father of the House.

The Herald quoted a supporter as saying: “Perhaps one of the finest illustrations of the power of ‘Time the Avenger’ (that) can be found is the fact that Morpeth, so long known by the reproachful cognomen of a ‘rotten borough’ will be the first to send a working man – a real undisguised man of the people – to Parliament”.

Women’s Suffrage

The subject of votes for women first appeared in the local press in the 1860s, largely because of reports from America, but the 1870s saw lectures and statements of support in Morpeth.

There were opponents, but generally there was a lot of support from councillors and the middle class. A good example is a meeting in 1878 when Miss Becker of Manchester, founder of the Women’s Suffrage Journal, addressed a meeting chaired by Thomas Burt.

Councillor GB Grey moved a resolution:

“That the exclusion of women, otherwise legally qualified, from voting in the election of members of Parliament is injurious to those excluded, contrary to the principle of just representation and to the laws now in force regulating the election of municipal, parochial, and all other representatives of governments.”

The motion was passed but it, like so many other efforts, led nowhere. However, the grip of the Guilds had gone, many men could vote at all levels and women could vote and stand for positions in local councils.

The big prize was still to be won and it took until 1918 for the first real step towards full enfranchisement in 1928.

A reminder of the past found in the old Herald office was the first page of a 1915 Occupiers List, a register of people (women) who were entitled to be enrolled as Burgesses but not to be registered as Parliamentary electors.

l Our thanks as usual go to the Mackay family for letting us view the Herald archives on Thursday afternoons at their shop, and to the customers who come into the shop while we are there and thank us for the articles.

We can be contacted at morpethhistory@hotmail.co.uk if you have any queries about the articles.