A hole lot of history about meeting place

Historian Roger Hawkins talking to Morpeth Rotary Club.
Historian Roger Hawkins talking to Morpeth Rotary Club.


As Morpeth Rotary meets at Morpeth Golf Club on Morpeth Common, it was fitting to ask historian Roger Hawkins to come to talk about the place.

The Common had 401 acres that were partly rented to a tenant farmer. For the rest, the Stewards managed the farm work, including looking after young bulls.

When the new Morpeth Town Corporation was set up in 1835 there was a battle to see who really owned and managed the Common on behalf of local people. It all came out in the case of John Doe versus Brady.

Morpeth Common had always been in the possession of the old Corporation of Morpeth, but it had no Charter and there was no knowledge of who gave it. Any Freeman, Free Brother or widow of either could graze two cattle there and could not give that right away.

The old Corporation was made up of seven companies, or guilds, and there was a distinction between Freemen and Free Brothers. Only Freemen could fill the most senior 12 offices and vote. There was a Sergeant at Mace, around six Constables, two Fish and Flesh Lookers, and two Bread-weighs and Ale-tasters. Free Brothers played no part in local government.

Much of the business was carried on at the Manorial Court, which met twice a year at Easter and Michaelmas. The Lord of the Manor presided and officials were appointed at Michaelmas.

Bailiffs were responsible for managing Morpeth Common. In 1762 the Common was transferred from the Bailiffs to the Committee of Stewards for the Improvement of Morpeth Common. There were 14 Stewards, with two elected by each company. In the company, a Freeman was just another member with the same rights as a Free Brother, but only Freemen could be civic officers. A Free Brother could be a Steward and vote for Stewards.

The Common had 401 acres that were partly rented to a tenant farmer. For the rest, the Stewards managed the farm work, including looking after young bulls.

The Common had three employees, the part-time Clerk, the Herd or Driver who looked after the cattle, and the Hind who was the arable farmer. The Hind occupied the house which is now part of Morpeth Golf Clubhouse.

For more than 70 years the Stewards did a good job and a good profit was made. It paid for the two free schools that the Corporation had in the town (only free to Freemen and Free Brothers) — the Infants’ School and the English School. They were separate to King Edward VI School.

The system lasted until the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which reformed the constitution of nearly every corporation in England and Wales. Alnwick was included in the draft, but petitioned to be excluded, with help from the Duke. The medieval borough corporations were reformed from December 31, 1835.

The changes were administered in Morpeth by the offices of William Woodman, solicitor. It was already planned to have a Town Clerk and 12 councillors, and they elected the first Mayor, solicitor Anthony Charlton. All the old offices ceased to exist, including the Bailiffs, Sergeant and Stewards, but they had already been lawfully appointed and still had ten months to serve.

The 1835 Act placed every borough under the governance of the newly elected town council and all property was transferred to the new council. The old councils were not abolished, but were stripped of all powers and possessions. Anyone who had the right to a benefit from the old council had it protected. There were still Freemen, Free Brothers and widows, but the Act did not say what should happen in the old corporations.

For about two years the Manorial Court and the old Corporation continued to meet at Michaelmas. Two Bailiffs and the Sergeant were appointed, but they had no real purpose. This carried on for many years until it faded out.

The new council met weekly from 1836. A committee was set up to inspect corporate properties, for as well as the Common, it owned houses, burgage plots and fields.

The council moved to take possession of all property held by the Stewards of the Common, who were to give up all papers and monies. The Bailiffs called a Common Guild – a meeting of all seven companies where Freemen and Free Bothers had the same rights.

The Common Guild said that Morpeth Common was not covered by the 1835 Act. In July 1837 the council asked the Stewards to pay cash for the upkeep of the Infants’ School while it was in the process of trying to take the property.

In January 1838 the council voted 9-4 in favour of legal action. This resulted in the case of John Doe versus Brady.

The council could not plead in its own name so had to use the technicality of being called John Doe as a hypothetical person who owed money to the King, while Ralph Brady was the first name on the list of 16, the 14 Stewards, the Herd and the Hind.

It was found that while the Stewards were responsible for the day to day management of the Common, it was the Bailiffs who signed off the accounts so the old Corporation was in charge after 

The Court of the Exchequer in London made the final decision in May 1840. It found that the Stewards were trying to oust the new corporation and decided in favour of the town council, also awarding costs to it.

In questions it was noted that there was another common in Morpeth and a racecourse. That was owned by the Earl of Carlisle who allowed the Freemen to use it for cattle, but if he found that they had voted the wrong way in an election, their cattle were turned off.

The vote of thanks was by Alex Swailes.