Municipal Corporations Act

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Municipal Corporations Act 1835 – The Peel Web
Municipal Corporations Act 1835 – Wikipedia

In 1835 the Municipal Reform Act was passed by Parliament. As a result 178 boroughs were granted permission to allow the townspeople to have their own councils. The 1835 Act stated that:

(a) all ratepayers should have a vote in council elections;

(b) each town was to be dived into wards, with councillors being electedfor each ward;

(c) the elected councillors were to chose aldermen who would form one-quarter of the council;

(d) the council was to elect a mayor;

(e) the council might, if it wished, take over such matters as the water supply;

(f) the council had to take responsibility for the local police force.Over the next thirty years other boroughs were given permission to have elected towncouncils and gradually these bodies took over the control of local services such as streetlighting, housing and education.

The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act

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 had received a Royal Charter at some time in the past 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.

Corporation funds are frequently expended in feasting and in paying the salaries of unimportant officers. In some cases, in which the funds are expended on public works, an expense has been incurred beyond what would be necessary if due care had been taken. These abuses often originate in negligence … in the opportunity afforded of obliging members of their own body, or the friends and relations of such members.

Parliamentary Papers (1835) XXIII. Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations

The corporations fixed the local bye-laws and taxes and it was impossible for the majority of rate-payers to remove unpopular councils because they could not be voted out. Most of the corporations used their privileges for personal and party advantage: the majority were Tories. Councils ignored matters like water supplies, drainage and street cleansing which they were supposed to oversee.

Even worse than this, most of the new industrial towns had not been recognised as boroughs and had no corporation at all. In these towns, living conditions deteriorated and the overcrowded slums were a threat to public health. In October 1831 the first cholera epidemic broke out in Sunderland and spread rapidly throughout the country. By January 1832 cholera had broken out both in Edinburgh and London.

Following the same procedures that had been adopted for theinvestigation 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 beunsatisfactory. As a result of the Commission’s findings, a Bill was drawn up and broughtto the House of Commons by Lord John Russell in June 1835.

The Bill went through the House of Commons without too muchdifficulty but the House of Lords proved more difficult. Most of the closed corporationswere controlled by Tories and the Tory peers claimed that the Bill was an attack onprivileges 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.

Terms of the Act

  • All closed corporations were abolished
  • Borough councils were to be elected by all male ratepayers who had lived in the town for three years
  • Councillors were elected for three years at a time and one-third of the council was to be elected annually
  • Councillors would choose the mayor, who would hold office for one year
  • Councillors would choose a group of Aldermen who would hold office for six years
  • Each borough was to have a paid town clerk and treasurer. Accounts were to be properly audited
  • Councils were required to form a police force
  • Councils, if they so wished, could take over social improvements such as proper drainage and street cleaning
  • Towns and cities that had no council could apply for incorporation if they so wished


The Act provided a vast improvement over the previous system, which was haphazard and disorganised. It also established the principal of elected town councils. Progress was very slow but the Act at least established the machinery that would enable future reforms to be carried out in the towns. However, the legislation did have several failings:

  • The Act did not compel the new councils to make social improvements. Consequently, by 1848 only twenty-nine boroughs had taken any action in terms of public health
  • Many towns failed to apply for incorporation because the procedure was complicated and expensive. In 1848 there were still sixty-two large towns without councils.
  • The Act mainly benefited the middle classes. Very few working men were wealthy enough to be ratepayers.

1835: Municipal Corporations Act
establishes directly elected corporate boroughs in place of the self-electing medieval corporations which had become widely discredited and often corrupt.


The origin of the British police lies in early tribal history and is based on customs for securing order through the medium of appointed representatives.

In effect, the people were the police.

The Saxons brought this system to England and improved and developed the organisation.
This entailed the division of the people into groups of ten, called “tithing”, with a tithing-man as representative of each; and into larger groups, each of ten tithing, under a “hundred-man” who was responsible to the Shire-reeve, or Sheriff, of the County.

The tithing-man system, after contact with Norman feudalism, changed considerably but was not wholly destroyed.
In time the tithing-man became the parish constable and the Shire-reeve the Justice of the Peace, to whom the parish constable was responsible.
This system, which became widely established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,comprised, generally of one unarmed able-bodied citizen in each parish, who was appointedor elected annually to serve for a year unpaid, as parish constable.
He worked in co-operation with the local Justices in securing observance of laws and maintaining order.
In addition, in the towns, responsibility for the maintenance of order was conferred on the guilds and, later, on other specified groups of citizens, and these supplied bodies of paid men, known as “The Watch”, for guarding the gates and patrolling the streets at night. (12112 bytes)

In the eighteenth century came the beginnings of immense social and economic changes and the consequent movement of the population to the towns.
The parish constable and “Watch” systems failed completely and the impotence of the law-enforcement machinery was a serious menace.
Conditions became intolerable and led to the formation of the “New Police”.

James Merryweather had a hunt in the Morrell Library and leafed through many dusty pages of the Commons Journals where there are loads of references to this act which is properly called

An Act to provide for the Regulation of Municipal Corporations in England and Wales
or, abbreviated in the margin
Municipal Corporations Bill

5 June 1835
Lord John Russell presented a Bill to provide for the Regulation of MunicipalCorporations in England and Wales : And the same was read for the firsttime; and ordered to be read a second time upon Monday the 15th day of this instant June.
Ordered, that the Bill be printed.

15-16 June 1835
Second reading.

22 June 1835
A petition of Freemen and Inhabitants of York were presented and read; taking notice of the Municipal Corporations Bill; and praying, That the same may pass into law. [Also other towns and cities incl. Lincoln, Bath, Beverley in this entry. There are lots of entries like this one, and I expect King’s Lynn was there somewhere, but I missed it.]

York’s response can be read in the council records of 1836 and 1837.
The number of City Waits was formerly five, but is now reduced to two, the vacancies occasioned by death not having been supplied. Mr Christophee Brown and Mr Daniel Hardman are the survivors. Their salaries are £4 per annum each, with Livery Coats and Hats found once in six years, the expense whereof has averaged £1:1:0 per annum each.
Your Committee are of the opinion that the Waits and the Tipstaves may be dispensed with, and they recommend those offices to be abolished.
8th February 1836
Resolved …. that bonds be given under the Common Seal to Mr Daniel Hardman and Mt Christopher Brown, late City Waits, for securing the payment of an Annuity of £2:13:4 to each of them, for his life, being compensations directed by the Lords of the Treasury to be paid to them respectively for the loss of their said office.
13th February 1837

I failed to find a copy of the bill itself and will have to try harder, but objections and ammendments occur well into 1836. My question is at what point did the bill become law, and I guess it was some time in 1835 but I haven’t located it.
Only a few search results gave the bill as being in 1836, most gave 1835. If only I could find that definitive date when the bill was first passed and became law.

According to Wardell’s “Municipal History of the Borough of Leeds” (1846), the Municipal Corporations Act received the Royal Assent on 9 September 1835. In Leeds the first meeting of the reformed Council was held on 1 January 1836.
Alan Radford.

The Lincoln data confirms 9 September 1835, but goes further by telling us when the division (into Wards) was to be completed.

An Order in Council dated 30th September 1835 required completion within “60 days next after the passing of the said Act”. Lincoln’s two appointed Barristers signed papers on 25 October 1835, declaring the division complete (in Lincoln). This seems to be clear evidence of the prescribed timescale for implementation of the Act. The Act became law on 9th September 1835. The Order of 30th September required all divisions to be complete by 9th of November 1835.
Al Garrod